What's your Biggest Problem?

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

If you didn't know, it's probably some of the people already working for you!

“What’s your biggest problem” was one of the questions that a manufacturing association asked in a survey of its members. They were deluged with answers and a few surprises.

They expected that the major problems would involve materials, manufacturing processes, machinery, management, technology or government regulations. None of these even came close. The major problem was people and the question seemed to open a Pandora's box.

The association heard stories that made them wonder how these firms managed to stay in business. One member told about a lead hand they promoted to supervisor only to find that he couldn't read the schematic diagrams of the components they were building. Another complained about his inspectors who couldn't inspect finished pieces with even a minimum degree of accuracy.

A plant manager related a horror story about workers whose eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity was so bad that their scrap rate tripled in a three-week period before they found out what was wrong. But the most common problem was one of finding people who had the reading and arithmetic skills necessary for today's complex, computer driven plants. As one manager put it, "We don't have a position here that doesn't require good reading and math skills. We can train people to operate certain machines, but if they can't read and can't compute, we can never move them to new equipment and as for advancing them, just forget it!"

The association also heard about some unique people problems. There was a plant supervisor who couldn't read blue prints; a data entry clerk who was fast but couldn't spell, a bookkeeper who couldn't divide and one unfortunate electronics firm that had hired three color blind workers to install color coded transistors. The results were chaotic and costly.

A second part of the association's survey asked its members to tell them what was required to solve these problems. The answers included the usual comments about firing people and improving trade schools, but the overwhelming need proved to be a demand for assistance from Human Resources departments in hiring better people. The managers wanted someone to prescreen applicants to make sure that they had the skills and abilities that were required for the jobs they would hold.

An investigation revealed that many of these firms were either not testing anyone at all or were using inadequate and inappropriate tests. Several were unaware of the kinds of tests available, where to find them and how to use them. The association embarked on a program to educate their members and their HR departments about the kinds of tests they could and should be using. Here is a summary of what they recommended.

Start with the Basic Skills Test. This is a quick paper and pencil test that accurately measures fifteen different abilities including: Language Skills, Reading Comprehension, Computation, Problem Solving, Decision Making, Following Oral Directions, Following Written Directions, Reasoning, Classifying, Visual Speed & Accuracy.

There are specific tests to measure reading and arithmetic skills and two of the best are the Reading Inventory and the Arithmetic Inventory. They measure every facet of these important abilities and will do so up to either a grade 8-9 level or the grade 12 level.

Recruiters wanting to hire people with the necessary hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity or hand-tool abilities should use The Stromberg Dexterity Test, the Hand-Tool Dexterity test, the Purdue Pegboard test or The Crawford Small Parts Dexterity Test. These tests require the applicant to manipulate small parts, sort color-coded pieces, or assemble items. Since the tests measure skills without regard to intellectual factors, they are suitable for use with applicants with mental or emotional disabilities.

Two of the most widely used tests are the Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test and the Flannigan Industrial Tests. The Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test will enable recruiters to determine quickly and accurately whether a job applicant has the aptitude to learn mechanical skills, and who is best suited for jobs requiring a grasp of the principles of operation and maintenance of complex devices. The Flanagan Industrial Tests measure specific aptitudes important for a variety of occupations. The tests may be used separately or in any combination. They are designed for Supervisory, technical, office, skilled labor and other industrial positions. The series includes tests for:

Arithmetic – Ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide.

Assembly – Ability to visualize how separate pieces will look as a whole.

Components – Ability to identify a simple figure that is part of a complete drawing.

Coordination – Ability to control hand and arm movements while working through a series of mazes.

Electronics – Ability to understand electrical and electronic principles as well as analyze diagrams of electrical circuits.

Expression – Knowledge of correct grammar and sentence structure.

Ingenuity – Ability to think of ingenious and effective ways of solving problems.

Inspection – Ability to spot imperfections or flaws in a series of objects.

Judgment and Comprehension – Ability to read and comprehend given information.

Mathematics and Reasoning – Ability to reason through mathematical word problems.

Mechanics – Ability to understand mechanical principles and analyze mechanical movement.

Memory – Ability to memorize different terms and their meanings.

Patterns – Ability to perceive and reproduce pattern outlines accurately.

Planning – Ability to plan, organize and schedule various types of activities.

Precision – Capacity for precision work with small objects.

Scales – Ability to read scales, graphs and charts.

Tables – Ability to read tables quickly and accurately.

Vocabulary – Knowledge of words used in business and government environments.

Both the Bennett and the Flanagan are paper and pencil tests and can be administered to applicants individually or in groups. The Bennett is also available on line. All of these tests have been thoroughly validated and are proven to be accurate. Several of them come with norms for specific jobs so recruiters can see how the applicant measures up to people in specific industries.

Human Resource departments owe it to their companies and their client departments to do everything they can to ensure that they hire people with the skills that are essential to the job. All of the tools necessary to do the task are available and most are inexpensive.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.