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HR Magazine: Heckman on Training and Testing

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HR Magazine, March 2001Vol. 46, No. 3

Behavior at Work

HR Magazine: In your research, you have found that government-sponsored training programs do not fare as well as those offered by the private sector. Why?

Heckman: In the government sector there is a tendency to try to satisfy all clients, and therefore, in the end no one is satisfied. There is substantial disconnect between the demands in the market and the training that occurs. Workers at government training centers have a very weak incentive to really place people and to understand the market realities. In contrast, people at private-sector firms have a pretty good idea what they need. So a company that's building a new kind of fountain pen has every incentive to get people who are up-to-date on the latest technology and not to waste a lot of time on old technologies or on foolish training investments.

HR Magazine: What can be done to make public-sector training more effective?

Heckman: When the public sector delivers the training, it's very important that the companies take the lead in pointing out what is required. It would be a terrible mistake to leave the choice of a curriculum in any kind of training facility, especially vocational training, up to government officials. There's just a complete lack of reality about what is going on out there. Any policies that move training away from market realities and from the feedback of what is actually desired by the business community is a terrible mistake.

HR Magazine: Many HR managers use tests that measure cognitive skills to forecast likely success in jobs and to monitor the gains from particular programs. How effective is this kind of testing?

Heckman: There are certain circumstances in which testing does a good job. For example, if you teach somebody how to make a better spot weld, then give a hands-on test asking the person to make a spot weld and you get a rating that's accurate, it's a perfect test. That's great. However, there are other kinds of tests of a more general nature which reveal only part of what the test-taker can do. They tend to be very misleading and give only a limited vision of the person.

Many companies and government agencies in the screening function screen employees by ability testing--measuring how well they do on standardized tests. That's only part of what's required. The really important requirement for some jobs is having the ability to finish a task, stay with it, be self-disciplined and self-governed. These non-cognitive skills tend to be neglected in testing.

One of the projects that I've worked on is the study of the GED, (the high school equivalency diploma). I've asked why it is that people who earn GEDs don't do all that well in the labor market. If you measure their IQs, they tend to be as good as, if not better than, the average high school graduate who doesn't go on to college. Where they fail is in non-cognitive skills; their emotional intelligence is low. Typically, they are smart people who cannot finish what they begin; they can't stay in school, can't stay with tasks; when hired, they have a high turnover rate.

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