Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills?

by Martin Green, M. Sc.

Director, Benchmark Testware

Are "soft skills" more important than actual knowledge? We all want to hire "team players"...but where do we strike the balance? In my opinion the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. Here is my story.

I began designing and selling pre-employment tests for skilled tradesmen ten years ago. I chose this field because as a mechanical engineer, having spent years working with those people, I had come to respect and value their abilities. What's more, I LIKED them. To me, they were the salt of the earth...good old boys who worked hard, played hard...yes, even drank hard...but when your line was down, they were the people who would fix it.

I saw what companies were using for "mechanical aptitude" tests, and it bothered me that as a college-educated engineer/math nerd, I could easily outscore my best maintenance mechanic on your typical Bennett or Wonderlic test. Why didn't someone write a test that would truly allow those individuals to shine? A test where THEY would outscore ME?? And after many false starts and wrong turns, that's finally what I succeded in creating. It's called the "Shop Apprentice" and I'm extremely proud of it.

Recently, I had a new client sign up for my services. They were staffing a whole new plant, and needed to hire six maintenance mechanics. They got off to a good start when they tested almost a hundred applicants (my service is offered on the basis of unlimited testing for a flat rate); happily, I was able to identify ten very solid candidates, including three especially who looked like full-fledged electrical/mechanical geniuses.

Not only was I pleased; the client was also very satisfied with the whole process. A win-win situation all around, right? Well, not exactly. About two months after the plant opened, I was able to engage the client in a detailed "post-mortem" of the hiring process. I was dismayed to learn that of the six applicants who were hired, the HIGHEST scorer among them had ranked TWELFTH overall on my test, and among others who were hired (based on strong performances in the interview) were some who ranked in in the high twenties or worse!

I find this outcome to be baffling and a little disturbing. I know how much trouble a "bad employee" can cause, even if he is technically competent. I know because I AM the qunitessential "bad employee"... opinionated, argumentative, basically unmanageable. That's why I don't have a job, and that's why I am self-employed. I accept that.

But those three electrical-mechanical geniuses...were they ALL such "bad apples"? My whole top ten...none of them worthy of being hired!? I can understand that out of the top ten, maybe you have to reject two or three based on personality issues...but was it necessary to go all the way to number twelve on the list before finding someone who fits your preconceived notion of a "good employee"?

Of all the jobs in a manufacturing facility, if there's ONE JOB where actual knowledge is more important than soft skills, it's the job of maintenance mechanic. I have to wonder: just what exactly were the "soft skills" were they unable to demonstrate in the interview process? How easy is it to simply brush off a man by saying "he's not a team player"?

This mailout goes to approximately 1200 HR and maintenance managers on my mailing list. I welcome your feedback on this issue and will post your responses to my distribution list. To be removed from this list, simply write back a COURTEOUS letter asking to have your name removed. Please include the email address where you received this letter.

Looking forward to hearing from you...

Marty Green

Benchmark Testware

ph 1-88-TESTWARE / 204 774 4932


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