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Among the many frustrations ahead for millions of Americans thrown out of work by the pandemic is one that may surprise them: To get a new job, it’s increasingly likely they will have to take a test.

As the number of candidates balloons while health risks make it hard for hiring managers to meet with them in person, a trend toward “pre-hiring assessments” — already under way before Covid-19 — is getting a huge new push.

With so many applicants, “you need filters,” said Richard Price, a research fellow at the Christensen Institute, which studies innovation. “You’re creating a quasi-audition for jobs.”

The recession and health crisis is speeding momentum for job tests that, before the pandemic, was being driven by more than just logistical considerations.

Skeptical that university degrees are the best measure of whether candidates have the skills they need, employers were already looking for ways that applicants could prove it — including in fields where that was not previously required.

“It’s like try before you buy,” said Price.

“With employers fielding a lot more applicants, how do we help create equitable processes for people at the top of the funnel?”

Steve Yadzinski, Jobs for the Future

Growing equity concerns resulting from the explosion of racial justice protests now are also playing a role in this. They give companies another reason to stop relying principally on academic degrees when hiring, since candidates who are Black are less likely than white candidates to have one, according to the U.S. Department of Education, for reasons including cost and access.

“With employers fielding a lot more applicants, how do we help create equitable processes for people at the top of the funnel?” said Steve Yadzinski, who works on innovations in workforce technology for Jobs for the Future — an advocacy group that makes its own job finalists take on work-related projects as a part of the decision process.

Related: Are colleges finally going to start training students for the workforce?

By removing the requirement of a degree, this process holds the promise of opening doors to capable candidates who never got one, he and others said.

“We’ve conflated employability with university degrees. We shouldn’t,” said Jacob Hsu, CEO of Catalyte, which conducts tests designed to find job candidates who have the potential to become software engineers, whether or not they went to college.

If a college degree was the only measure of potential, he said, no one would have ever hired Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates or Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who all dropped out.

Employers “are starting to recognize that there are people with the talent they’re looking for that don’t come from Harvard or the other colleges they have historically recruited from,” said Alex Linley, a co-founder and CEO of the testing firm Cappfinity.

Nearly one in four businesses now conduct such assessments, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports; nearly 40 percent of hiring executives expect them to become widespread within three years and 70 percent within five, according toa survey conducted before the pandemic by Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

Now, with far more applicants in the pipeline, “I only see pre-hiring assessment gaining momentum,” Price said.

Related: Students sick of ‘lip service’ from universities over racism

An interview will still come at the end of that process, “but this is a way to cut 10,000 people to 1,000 and then figure out how to sort them,” said Jack Buckley, president and chief scientist at the testing technology startup Imbellus.

Further driving this trend are advances in technology that make it possible to evaluate how people think and not just what they know, to paraphrase one testing company’s motto. The tests are designed to measure such things as whether applicants can work in teams, communicate and make good decisions. 

“There has been an inherent promise and almost the inherent contract of, ‘I’m going to go to this Ivy League university and then walk into a job by virtue of the pedigree I have.’ And that is no longer the case.”

Alex Linley, a co-founder and CEO, Cappfinity

It’s also a response to falling confidence in university degrees as measures of career preparedness. Only about one out of 10 business leaders in a Gallup poll strongly agreed that college graduates were ready for the workplace. Some employers, including Apple, Google, IBM, Bank of America and EY — formerly Ernst & Young — have dropped college degree requirements for some new hires altogether.

“There has been an inherent promise and almost the inherent contract of, ‘I’m going to go to this Ivy League university and then walk into a job by virtue of the pedigree I have.’ And that is no longer the case,” said Linley, whose tests present job candidates with scenarios they might confront at client companies including EY, Deloitte, DHL and KPMG and measure how they respond.

“There’s no trickery. It’s all very straightforward and transparent,” Linley said. “What we’re trying to do is provide a realistic job preview.”

In the past, employers that tested applicants for jobs would do such things as ask them to agree or disagree with a series of pronouncements, Linley said. Most candidates would naturally give what they assumed to be the answers the employer wanted.

Related: As recession deepens, colleges are cutting back on career services

Artificial intelligence, gamification and other developing technologies are giving rise instead to what experts call “situational judgment” and “scenario-based” assessment tests. Most require candidates to respond to real-world situations. One, developed for the McKinsey & Company consulting firm by Imbellus, puts them on a simulated coral reef or in a mountain valley where they have to work alone to save the endangered ecosystem.

“It’s not just, ‘Here’s my resume and here’s my degree and that’s your marker of talent.”

Caitlin Storhaug, director of global recruiting communications, McKinsey & Company

 “It’s not just, ‘Here’s my resume and here’s my degree and that’s your marker of talent,” said Caitlin Storhaug, McKinsey’s director of global recruiting communications.

Online forums to help applicants beat tests like these have inevitably sprung up, along with coaching services to help candidates prepare for them; a human-resources executive at one large tech firm said it hadn’t moved to widespread use of pre-hiring assessments because of the potential that people would simply cheat. (The creators of these tests respond that AI lets them build in unpredictable twists and turns, and that they monitor response patterns and completion times to fend off cheating.)

Ryan Behan, senior director of engineering at Netsmart Technologies, judging projects at a hackathon at Stony Brook University in New York. “You come to a place like this, you’re seeing [prospective employees] in their element,” he says. Credit: Emma Harris for The Hechinger Report

The most sophisticated, customized tests are also pricey. “The difference between what we’re doing and the old-school way of hiring a person is cost,” said Buckley.

But it’s cheaper than hiring the wrong person.

Storhaug said that, while there isn’t yet a critical mass of results to quantify this, the people hired after taking the McKinsey test “do have really good problem-solving skills. There haven’t been mis-hires.” And as the cost begins to fall, said Buckley, “I don’t think [these tests] are going away.”

Related: Subscribing to college and other visions of higher education’s future

Employers also were starting to show up at events such as hackathons to watch prospective candidates show their stuff, under pressure and in real time — a practice interrupted by the pandemic but likely to resume when the competitions do.

At a hackathon at Stony Brook University before the Covid-19 disruptions, for example, tech firm representatives prowled for talent among the 150 hackers from around the country vying for $5,000 in prizes that would reward their ingenuity and hands-on skills.

Nearly one in four companies are now conducting pre-hiring tests. Nearly 40 percent of hiring executives expect them to become widespread within three years and 70 percent within five.

“A resume is a two-dimensional view of someone,” said Ryan Behan, senior director of engineering at Netsmart Technologies, as he gestured around the all-purpose room where the busy hackathon was under way. “You come to a place like this, you’re seeing them in their element.”

More than 10,000 participants got job or internship offers last year from companies they encountered at Major League Hacking events, the organization says.

Employers “get that one-on-one time with students and can watch them work through problems,” said Jonathan Gottfried, the official collegiate hackathon league’s co-founder.

job tests
Jon Gottfried, co-founder of the official collegiate hackathon league, Major League Hacking. Gottfried says recruiters are increasingly using hackathons as hiring opportunities. By relying solely on degrees and resumes, he says, “they miss a lot of candidates who aren’t good at marketing themselves.” Credit: Emma Harris for The Hechinger Report

Students say they like this route to a career.

“It was a much better way to show off what I can do” than by putting on a suit and sitting through an interview, said Adam An, a senior at the College of William & Mary who got an internship with Capital One through an encounter at a hackathon.

Related: To pay for college, more students are promising a piece of their future to investors

Back at Stony Brook, tired students sat behind laptops covered with stickers commemorating past hackathons, at tables dripping with colored wires. The daylight outside was kept at bay by shades pulled over the windows.

“This is the absolutely best way you can demonstrate your skills, your knowledge and your drive,” said one, Muntaser Syed, a 36-year-old doctoral student in computer engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology. “Staying up for 40 hours to build something shows how driven you are.”

Employers “can even test us here, and we can deliver and really show them what we can do,” said Aishwarya Kanchi Ranganath, 23, a graduate student in biochemical engineering at Rutgers.

And Donald Finlayson, a 21-year-old cybersecurity major at Johnson & Wales University, said a friend who’s already graduated got a job at a company that “only asked him about the hackathons,” in spite of his long list of other credentials. 

Frank Jacovino, vice president of operations at IPVideo, circulated among the hackers as a judge and said he was keeping one eye open for prospective employees.

“We get lots of students that come in, they give us a resume, and ‘We took this course, we took that course’ ” — they all look the same,” Jacovino said.

“What we’re looking for is for the kids that are really passionate about the technology, going to hackathons or doing their own projects at home,” he said. “They’re the ones that we’re most interested in.”

This story about job tests was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Additional reporting by Arielle Dollinger. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. 

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