Just a few years ago, online skills testing was touted as the recruiting tool of the millennium. Now, at the height of a loosening job market, with rising unemployment and employers inundated with an avalanche of resumes, it’s a good time to review the value of online testing and what importance it carries in today’s recruiting process.

Test purveyors like Mike Russiello, president and CEO of Chantilly, VA-based Brainbench Inc., and Karen Osofsky, a principal at the Tiburon Group, a recruitment-consulting firm in Chicago, believe that online testing is a valuable recruiting tool.

“With employers getting triple the number of job applicants than they did in the past two years, online tests are a good tool for weeding out unqualified candidates,” said Osofsky. “It can also save employers a bundle of money when you consider that the cost of losing an applicant is one-and-one-half times an employee’s annual salary,” she added.

Osofsky estimates that 10 to 15 percent of Fortune 500 firms are recruiting IT professionals online. According to Russiello, online testing utilization has doubled in the last four years, primarily as a skills assessment tool. Yet, while online recruiting is remaining strong, online testing isn’t growing as fast, as 90 percent of employers aren’t using Internet-based skills tests, said Russiello.

In this article, we’ll discuss why online skills testing and assessment hasn’t caught on with CIOs and IT hiring managers as initially predicted.

Verification, authenticity are obstacles
One reason for the lack of adoption is that online testing isn’t completely verifiable. During on-site skills testing, the applicant is in full view, but with online testing, it’s a different environment.

“Just as an employer can never know whether a resume is written by the applicant or a professional resume-writer, you have no way of knowing whether the test was taken by someone else,” explained Russiello.

Another problem is verifying an applicant’s background. “You’d be shocked to discover how many applicants misrepresent themselves and list college degrees from bogus institutions,” said Bret Hollander, president of Netrecruiter.net, an online recruiting firm based in Bethesda, MD.

Jim Hollister, an HR consultant to Fanny Mae Corporation, described online testing as a good first-round screening tool but said he’s never used it in his 18-year career as an HR executive.

“I wouldn’t rely on the results,” he said. “In many cases, great candidates slip through the cracks because they don’t take tests well.”

Some question value of skill certification
Another adoption hurdle facing online testing programs is how employers view professional skill certifications.

Besides online job testing tools, Brainbench sells 350 online credential certification exams, from C++ and Java to Cisco networking. The exam costs $20 and takes 45 minutes to complete. Only 33 percent of Russiello’s test-takers pass. According to Russiello, certifications carry clout with employers, because earning a certification is not an easy goal to accomplish.

But Hollander disagrees. “Most employers don’t buy them,” Hollander insisted.

Jim Hollister doesn’t think much of most certification programs either. He doubts that most employers have ever heard of Brainbench certifications and other similar tests. The only certifications that carry weight are highly respected ones, like Microsoft’s MCSE, for example, he said.

While it’s clear that online testing isn’t going to disappear, it seems highly unlikely at this point that it will ever replace face-to-face skill interviews by technical managers. “There is no better way [than a face-to-face interview] to get a sense of the whole person,” explained Hollister.

Osofsky also pointed out that online tests can be flawed, as exams often include textbook questions that have no bearing on a specialist’s job.

But the biggest problem with online testing is its rigidity and inflexibility. It’s presumptuous to create universal standards for job candidates. That’s why employers should stick with traditional hiring methods, because the best hiring decisions are made on the basis of a resume, interview, and thorough reference check.

“The best way to prove yourself is face-to-face,” said Hollander. “This way, you’re not just a bunch of scored answers to questions but a live person who has an opportunity to make a lasting impression.”

Does your company conduct online testing during the hiring process?

Tell us how valuable it is in determining the right candidate or why you’re not using it for your hiring program.