Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Use Common Sense with Assessments

I worked for 19 years at the nation’s premier testing company, and one thing I learned was not to be dogmatic about assessments. Even the makers of the mighty SAT exam freely admit that their scores do not predict college achievement as well as high school grades do. The SAT scores still have value, however, because when combined with high school grades, they give a better prediction than the grades could alone.

Something similar can be said about assessments that are designed to help you with career choice: Alone, they probably are not the best way to identify a promising career. But combined with other sources of information, they can be very helpful.

Incautious assessment users sometimes forget that psychological instruments are not as precise as a yardstick. Every assessment has a certain margin of error, meaning that although its scores put you into category x, there is a chance that you really belong in the neighboring category y. In baseball games, it’s usually pretty obvious whether a ball has landed in fair or foul territory. But imagine what accuracy would be possible if the ball were ten times as big as a beach ball and even more squishy: Even the instant replay would not resolve a borderline hit.

In baseball, it’s also helpful that the foul lines are at the edges of the area that the batter is aiming for. Now imagine what the game would be like if a line ran right down the middle of the field, and the score of the game depended on which side of the line the enormous beach ball fell on. For good measure, imagine that both right-handed and left-handed batters tended to hit the ball towards the middle. Now you have an idea why I’m reluctant to use the Myers-Briggs assessment. It attempts to place you on one side or the other of a bipolar range (e.g., introvert or extravert), although the normal distribution that is so typical of psychological characteristics clusters most people near the middle. There’s a very high likelihood that your actual location on this continuum is close enough to the middle that the inevitably imprecise measurement of the instrument will assign you to the wrong side of the middle.

Although I prefer to use assessments based on the Holland types, I have to caution that they also are unable to achieve a pinpoint focus. For the Holland types, let me change the metaphor from baseball to hopscotch, where a lot depends on which square your marker lands in. On the playgrounds where I grew up, the squares tended to be at least 10 inches across, but imagine how the game would be if they were only 3 inches across and your marker were a beanbag the size of a dinner plate. Fortunately, the Holland rationale is conceptually more forgiving of ambiguity than is the Myers-Briggs rationale, because it is not bipolar and accepts the notion that bordering types (for example, Realistic and Investigative) share some characteristics. If I can’t tell for certain whether my beanbag fell in the Realistic of Investigative square, I probably would not err greatly by favoring occupations coded RI, IR, or even just R or I.

But the really big mistake would be to rely solely on the assessment, whatever its rationale. Here are some other indicators of your interests and preferences that you should consider:
  • In what school subjects did I get the most enjoyment and the best grades?
  • What activities am I reluctant to drop at dinnertime?
  • What are my favorite sections of the newspaper or of news websites?
  • At a party, what kind of people would I be able to sustain a conversation with?
  • If you could meet the world’s greatest ____________ and get that person to share his or her secrets of success, what field would that person’s achievement be in? (Romance doesn’t count.)
Still another indicator is the opinion of a family member or of a friend who knows you very well. Explain the concepts that the assessment is designed to measure and ask this person which characteristics describe you best.

Making decisions is hard. People naturally tend to seek the quickest and easiest way to decide between x and y. This is one reason why people often perceive an assessment as the beginning and ending of the decision-making process. Instead, use an assessment as the start of a gradual process of self-discovery.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Manufacturing and the German Model

I’m writing this blog two days after Labor Day and one day before President Obama’s job-focused speech to a joint session of Congress, so I’m thinking a lot about the problem of high unemployment and underemployment. But the job-related story that caught my eye in today’s paper was the obituary of someone you’ve probably never heard of: Keith Tantlinger.

Tantlinger, who died on August 27 at age 92, was the engineer who designed the modern shipping container in the 1950s. His crucial innovation was a locking mechanism on the corners of the containers that allowed them to be stacked on ships, trains, and trucks. He also designed the corners to be easily grasped by cranes. I once watched a ship being loaded in the port of Hamilton, Bermuda, and marveled at the way the containers were being piled high on the deck rather than just being lowered into the hold, as I thought cargo was supposed to be stowed.

So what did this innovation have to do with jobs? It drastically reduced the costs of shipping goods by simplifying the process of transferring the goods from one carrier to another. Specifically, it reduced the costs of labor, damage, and pilferage. Cheaper shipping made it possible for us to stock our WalMarts with Chinese-manufactured goods and thus was one of the key factors causing the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States. In 1969, about one-quarter of U.S. jobs were in manufacturing, but that number is now down at around 9 percent. It contributes to about 11 percent of our economy now.

But it’s important to understand that manufacturing doesn’t have to be a dead industry in the United States. In Germany, it accounts for about 25 percent of the economy and helps Germany’s keep trade balance second only to China’s. What can explain the difference?

One factor is the German emphasis on vocational education, including widespread apprenticeship, even for white-collar jobs.

Another is Kurzarbeit, which allows companies to cut workers’ hours while keeping them on the payroll, with the government making up a portion of the lost wages. Companies thus don’t lose their skilled workers during temporary downturns, and employees don’t lose good work habits and their relationships with bosses and coworkers.

Still another factor is the German banking system, which includes Sparkasse banks owned by local governments rather than private investors and functioning like savings and loans to provide funding for local businesses and homeowners. Their high collateral requirements (at least 20 percent for a mortgage) prevented these banks from engaging in the risky home loans that American lending institutions still have not recovered from.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the role of workers in the management of German companies. This takes three forms. First, unionization is high, at about 20 percent, compared to our rate of less than 7 percent. Labor unions in Germany tend to influence policy at the industrywide level. At individual worksites, workers influence decisions about wages, hiring, and work conditions through “works councils,” which consist of employees (not necessarily union members) elected for four-year terms. Finally, under the policy of codetermination (Mitbestimmungs), corporate boards are required to include representatives of workers as well as representatives of shareholders. At corporations with 500 to 2000 employees, one-third of the board represents the workers; at larger companies, it’s half of the board.

Although low-skill American manufacturing jobs continue to be lost to overseas workers, advanced manufacturing processes are creating high-skill jobs. I detail some of these jobs in 200 Best Jobs for Renewing America. But manufacturing could regain even more of its lost role in our economy if we borrowed some ideas from the German model.