Walden has become a global leader with tests to indicate applicant’s success potential

article7_picDEREK CASSOFF, Freelance, Montreal Gazette.

Stephen Silver has never met a curriculum vitae he didn’t like. Of course, 35 years in the business world has taught Silver that job candidates often use their CVs as an opportunity to inflate their skills and know-how, leaving many a human-resource specialist to wonder whether the applicant is qualified enough to succeed on the job.

Factor in the increasing sophistication of computer knowledge and high-tech applications and the average recruiter is often helpless when it comes to assessing a job candidate’s true skills.

“Hiring the right people has become very hard and most companies want some way to improve their selection process,” Silver said. “How does a human-resource person evaluate the skills of a computer programmer when they don’t even speak the same language?”

Those concerns propelled Silver to leave a secure job as a corporate executive 25 years ago and launch Walden Personnel Testing and Training Inc., a company that creates and administers personnel tests aimed at measuring the skill level of aspiring job applicants.

Partnering with New York mathematics professor Jack Wolfe, who wrote some of the world’s first computer-skills tests back in the 1940s and 1950s, Silver launched his company from the basement of his St. Laurent home – a drastic change of scenery from the executive suites of Wonderbra, where he had been vice-president (finance and data processing).

“When you’re young, you take more risks,” recalled Silver, now 59. “But I knew that (this concept) had potential, that it was a valuable service.”

Silver’s premonitions have proved to be as accurate as his company’s test results. Today, Walden Personnel has grown into a global leader in the creation and administration of skill and aptitude tests. Its bank of tests has grown to 50 and Silver estimates that more than 10,000 job applicants take Walden tests each year. Sales range from $3 million to $4 million a year.

Perhaps most impressive are some of the names found amid Walden’s roster of more than 1,000 clients. Customers include the Central Intelligence Agency, the World Bank, US Airways and Time Warner, as well as many large banks and insurance companies and several U.S. states.

While the core of Walden’s business is still focused on computer-skills testing, the company has branched out in recent years to create tests that measure a job candidate’s likelihood to succeed in a wide range of jobs, including management, sales, marketing and clerical work.

While most of the tests don’t measure specific skills or expertise, they use carefully crafted examples that simulate on-the-job experiences to judge an individual’s aptitude – creating, in effect, a profile of one’s ability to learn a new skill.

“The tests often locate people who never realized that they were skilled,” Silver said.

Graders look not only at whether answers are right or wrong, but also at how candidates derived the answers and where they might have slipped up, he said.

Tests are administered to job candidates in the client’s office and are then sent, usually by fax or courier, to a scoring centre in New Milford, N.J., for grading. Within a day, the client receives a detailed evaluation report describing the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate.

An increasing number of tests also are available over the Internet, with the job candidates sending their answers to the scoring centre electronically.

Most tests are available in English and French. The Wolfe Aptitude Assessment Battery Programming test, easily Walden’s bestseller, is also available in Spanish and Braille.

Prices range from $5 for an online version of the clerical-skills test to more than $1,000 for an in-depth test to measure management and supervisory skills. Prices include the test itself, as well as grading and the evaluation report. Graders are also available to discuss a particular individual’s results.

“The cost of making a mistake and hiring the wrong person can be anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, when you consider salary, severance pay, disruption and the mess the person may have caused while on the job,” said Silver, who employs a dozen people at his Westmount office.

“The savings from one wrong hire will pay for years and years worth of tests.”

Stephanie Brown, a project manager with the State of California’s Employment Development Department, says her organization probably saved thousands of dollars in training costs when it used one of Walden’s aptitude tests to fill eight computer-programming vacancies.

After failing to find experienced external candidates, the department decided to offer aptitude tests to its current employees, regardless of prior programming experience. More than 300 employees accepted the offer and, from there, eight were chosen, including some who had never before used a computer, but had scored highest on the aptitude test.

The eight were trained at a cost of nearly $10,000 U.S. each and all have succeeded on the job, Brown said.

“We hired some people who we otherwise would never have considered and avoided hiring people who would have been mistakes,” she said.

But despite the tests’ proven success at predicting aptitude, Silver is quick to caution companies not to rely solely on the test results when assessing job candidates.

“We’re not psychologists, we’re technical people,” he said. “These tests aren’t the whole answer, they’re just another input meant to complement the resume, the interview and the reference checks. We never tell people to make their hiring decisions based only on the test results.”

Walden’s staff promotes the company’s tests in several ways, including through direct-mail campaigns, by attending human-resource trade shows and, increasingly, through Internet advertising. Yet Silver says it’s often difficult to close a deal with first-time clients, saying the average sales pitch lasts anywhere from six months to a year.

“People are skeptical, they’re too busy and they don’t want to change their hiring procedures,” he said. “It takes someone who has a big need and really believes in (the concept).”

Incidentally, Wolfe, who passed away eight years ago, lived long enough to see his one-time hobby turn into a profitable business. His family continues to collect royalties each time one of his original tests is sold.