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Why practical assessments should be more widely adopted to evaluate professional talent

23 May 2023
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Are practical assessments being given enough attention? As high-stakes industries continue to evolve at pace, the demand for competent employees who consistently deliver is greater than ever. The issue? Academic-based assessments can act as a barrier to identifying prospective talent, as well as falling short in their ability to effectively measure competency within a workplace setting. The answer? Practical, industry-led assessments.

A model built around on-the-job performance is central to evidencing knowledge and particularly beneficial during the pre-hire stage. Further to that, it levels the playing field for candidates who may not come from an academic background, enabling them to demonstrate the skills required to successfully perform their roles.

As leading experts in the field of high-stakes assessments and qualifications, we offer tailored solutions that truly make a difference to the day-to-day running of organisations. Get in touch with our team today to discuss your unique requirements.

Practical assessments: Recognising prospective talent through skills-based evaluation

Employers everywhere are having a difficult time finding and retaining great employees. One reason is the increasing importance of intangible “soft skills.” A recent analysis of 82 million job postings found that seven of the 10 most commonly requested skills were soft skills: attributes like communication, adaptability and critical thinking. Yet while there’s no shortage of soft skills listed on resumes — “people person”, “self-starter” — it’s difficult to confirm these independently, without the use of practical assessment.

Another reason for the increased difficulty in recruitment and retention is a simple shortage of talent. The labour market is currently candidate-driven, with employers competing for talent, and workers who are more likely to leave a job if something more attractive comes along. According to the 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey from Willis Towers Watson, more than half of employees in the United States are actively looking for work or at risk of leaving. Employers simply need a larger pool of prospective employees. As a result, a handful of major companies have dropped degree requirements from some positions in response.

Filtering that expanded pool for candidates most likely to succeed professionally requires a separate solution: practical assessments.

During the pre-hire process, practical assessments are able to more accurately filter talent, expand candidate pools, or both. No wonder more and more employers are turning to this type of model.

A holistic, hands-on evaluation

Practical assessments use scenario-based questions and an oral component to test a suite of relevant skills. Many professional jobs will always have academic requirements, and rightly so. But even for those, academic performance is an imperfect proxy for on-the-job competence. Widespread belief to the contrary is leaving graduates less prepared for work roles. At the annual higher education conference of The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), which I attended in July 2022, it was noted that prospective employees were frequently unaware that employers value transferable skills like communications, resilience, and passion and 9 months on very little seems to have changed.

Conversely, professional firms often screen out job candidates based on educational attainment or years of experience early in the recruitment process, ignoring potential candidates who may have the aptitude for the position but not the resume. By instead using a practical assessment as the first filter, employers can identify prospects who might develop into excellent employees.

Top organisations are moving towards a practical assessment style

Consider the practical assessment for qualifying by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in the U.K. It requires candidates to work through a legal case in a live setting, revealing more about their ability to do the job than just a multiple-choice test can. While this assessment is specifically used to determine if an individual has what it takes to become a qualified Solicitor, this same kind of hands-on, scenario-based assessment can be applied towards evaluating professional competencies in other industries as well. For example, in vetting candidates in the pre-hire process to identify whether they have the necessary competencies and skills beyond academic qualifications. Incorporating an assessment to evaluate an individual’s potential to do the job is just as relevant to the hiring process as it is to the professional qualification process.

Ernst & Young’s decision to drop degree classification requirements from its hiring process in 2015, relying instead on its own assessments of graduates’ competence and character strengths, put it ahead of the curve. Just a few weeks ago, PwC followed suit, no longer requiring UK applicants to hold a 2:1 degree (a bachelor’s degree with high marks). Instead, the company will use its “own aptitude and behavioural testing [to] assess a candidate’s potential.”

Practical assessments are a valuable tool for assessing a group of applicants to find the ones who will add the most value to an organisation. Because a practical assessment can provide a more insightful view of each candidate’s competencies, employers can use it to expand employment pools to include graduates who may have less-remarkable transcripts but high potential. It also presents the ability to recruit from colleges with less-prestigious names and find bright, talented people without degrees who can be developed into exemplary employees.

The practical assessment in action

The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), an assessment for qualifying to be a solicitor in England and Wales, provides a relatively unique example of the use of practical high stakes professional assessments. Alongside the medical sector, in which those qualifying to be doctors are tested using OSCE assessments, the SQE is one of the only high-stakes assessments that is currently testing both the practical application of skill sets and knowledge. Such assessments are designed to gauge an individuals’s level of expertise whilst observing their practical abilities, which are equally critical. This combination of assessment methodology provides a more accurate reflection of competence in a real-life setting.

In any environment, traditional recruitment measures are bound to exclude some excellent prospects and qualify some incompetent ones. Amid a tight labour market and an increasing emphasis on soft skills, systemic inefficiency is heightened. A well-designed practical assessment can highlight candidates who could be developed and filter out those without job-specific skills that are difficult to teach.

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