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Selection trumps training for successful employees

January 20th, 2015

As an educator, I have often heard from employers: “Give us trainable new employees that will show up on time and provide an honest day’s work.” Some states in the USA have adopted work-readiness certification that helps answer the question of a person’s trainability. What we are less prepared to answer is the question of “soft skills.” The presence or absence of appropriate soft skills can determine a new hire’s success.

What’s more important, training or selection, when hiring new employees? New hires bring personal traits that elude the influence of employer sponsored training. Employers want good employees. This obvious expectation is often expressed as a desire for good “soft skills”. These soft skills are frequently described as: “show up on time”; “care about customers”; “be honest” or “work in a team.” These are perennial expectations by employers. Beware of anyone claiming that that training is the solution. The solution is to employ effective employee selection that identifies these traits. The question is not can the employee learn to do the job, but will the employee do the job. Effective training is critical, but can only be built on strong foundation of effective selection.

Consider ACT’s Workkeys Talent Assessment system. ACT in Iowa City is the leading player in academic and workplace skill assessment. ACT’s research confirms that personal traits (Customer Service Orientation, Managerial Potential, Teamwork, and Work Discipline) are employee selection criteria, and not readily influenced by training. Understanding this fact will save employers time and money using training when training is not effective.

Nonetheless, ACT has developed a Soft Skills Suite that can help a learner build on skills that can improve performance. The ACT Talent Assessment is a personality inventory and its scores identify the strength of work-related personal traits. Training does not affect personal traits in the same way it affects skills or behavioral knowledge. This resistance of behavioral traits to the influence of training does not present a completely gloomy outlook. When a person becomes aware of personal traits that are not desired in the workplace, it is possible to learn behaviors and attitudes that will build on some traits and compensate for others.

The importance of selection (and its relationship to training) became clear at the end of World War II when the US Army became aware that training was not enough. The Army observed that even with proper training, some soldiers failed at their jobs while the same training made others a success. Analysis of the situation brought a new focus on fitting behavioral styles with specific jobs. Matching personal traits to the job produced dramatically better performance results. Behavioral assessment became critical to organizational success. Effective training is critical, but training cannot replace effective selection.

Training is effective when a lack of knowledge or skill is the problem. For example, safety training can provide all the needed knowledge and skill to do work in manner to avoid hazards, but compliance is critical for any safety program. Training does not ensure compliance.

Personal traits are obviously a concern for employers. I recommend employers improve selection, and not consume resources attempting to train for personal traits. Training resources, as limited as they are, should focus on job related knowledge and skill, where return on investment is available and can be measured.

By Robert G. Ketchum, Ph.D.

Previously published in the North Idaho Business Journal

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