Technology's influence reshapes how employers assess job applicants

Companies are challenging the notion that students who specialize in STEM courses and academia will be more likely to succeed in the job market. Instead, many employers are using computer programs to assess the qualitative skills of their candidates. 

Doug Engle/Star-Banner/AP/File
Erin Freel from The Market Place (r.) conducts a mock job interview with Makenzi Engelhardt at Belleview High School on March 21 in Ocala, Fla. Schools around the country are encouraging similar training to better prepare their students for entering the job market.

When Andrew Chamberlain started in his job four years ago in the research group at jobs website, he worked in a programming language called Stata. Then it was R. Then Python. Then PySpark.

"My dad was a commercial printer and did the same thing for 30 years. I have to continually stay on stuff," said Mr. Chamberlain, who is now the chief economist for the site.

Chamberlain already has one of the jobs of the future – a perpetually changing, shifting universe of work that requires employees to be critical thinkers and fast on their feet. Even those training for a specific field, from plumbing to aerospace engineering, need to be nimble enough to constantly learn new technologies and apply their skills on the fly.

When companies recruit new workers, particularly for entry-level jobs, they are not necessarily looking for knowledge of certain software. They are looking for what most consider soft skills: problem solving, effective communication, and leadership. They also want candidates who show a willingness to keep learning new skills.

"The human being's role in the workplace is less to do repetitive things all the time and more to do the non-repetitive tasks that bring new kinds of value," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce in the United States.

So while specializing in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field can seem like an easy path to a lucrative first job, employers are telling colleges: You are producing engineers, but they do not have the skills we need.

It is "algorithmic thinking" rather than the algorithm itself that is relevant, said Dr. Carnevale.

Out in the field, Marie Artim is looking for potential. As vice president of talent acquisition for car rental firm Enterprise Holdings Inc., she sets out to hire about 8,500 young people every year for a management training program, an enormous undertaking that has her searching college campuses across the country.

Ms. Artim started in the training program herself, 26 years ago, as did the Enterprise chief executive, and that is how she gets the attention of young adults and their parents who scoff at a future of renting cars.

According to Artim, the biggest deficit in the Millennial generation is autonomous decisionmaking. They are used to being structured and "syllabused," she said.

To get students ready, some colleges, and even high schools, are working on building critical thinking skills.

For three weeks in January at the private Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Ga., students either get jobs or go on trips, which gives them a better sense of what they might do in the future.

At Texas State University in San Marcos, meanwhile, students can take a marketable-skills master class series.

One key area hones in on case studies that companies are using increasingly to weed out prospects. This means being able to answer hypothetical questions based on a common scenario the employer faces, and showing leadership skills in those scenarios.

The career office at the university also focuses on interview skills. Today, that means teaching kids more than just writing an effective résumé and showing up in smart clothes. They have to learn how to perform best on video and phone interviews, and how to navigate gamification and artificial intelligence bots that many companies are now using in the recruiting process.

Norma Guerra Gaier, director of career services at Texas State, said her son just recently got a job and not until the final step did he even have a phone interview.

"He had to solve a couple of problems on a tech system, and was graded on that. He didn't even interface with a human being," Ms. Guerra Gaier said.

When companies hire at great volume, they try to balance the technology and face-to-face interactions, said Heidi Soltis-Berner, evolving workforce talent leader at financial services firm Deloitte.

Increasingly, Ms. Soltis-Berner does not know exactly what those new hires will be doing when they arrive, other that what business division they will be serving.

"We build flexibility into that because we know each year there are new skills," she said.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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