Monday, September 22, 2008

No Worker Left Behind: Testing job applicants not shown to harm equity

UWM economist Marc Levine’s most recent figures (2006 data) on what he has termed “the crisis of black male joblessness in Milwaukee,” identifying that 46.8 percent of working-age black males in the city are out of work, suggest that Milwaukeeans should take notice of studies about minorities and employment. A new study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics by David Autor and David Scarborough makes a connection between equitable hiring and worker productivity.

With employers increasingly using company-designed standardized tests to measure applicants’ potential job skills, Autor and Scarborough wanted to find out what effect this testing had on rates of minority hires. Perhaps testing would reduce racial discrimination (and increase minority employment) by introducing objective data to rely on in hiring. Due to multiple societal and demographic factors, overall, minorities as a group tend to score lower on standardized tests than non-minorities. So, would the testing lead employers to hire fewer minorities based on differential scores? Additionally, would the employees hired based on test scores perform better than those hired before the firms introduced testing?

The researchers used data from over 1,300 retail stores of a national chain, and determined the test in use to be non-racially-biased. After examining hiring and job tenure both before and after testing was instituted, the study found that employees hired using testing had higher job tenures by 10%. Though minorities did score lower than others on the standardized test, minority hiring was unaffected by the introduction of testing to the application process. Furthermore, the aspects of testing that enhanced employee productivity accrued to both minority and non-minority job applicants.

The testing not affecting minority employment is good news, but the increase in job tenure accruing to both minorities and non-minorities is even more encouraging. It implies that the job testing allowed employers to make more informed decisions of whom to hire in both the minority and non-minority pools of applicants.

The study’s findings, as some have noted -- especially the fact that minority hiring was stable despite lower test scores – suggest that testing applicants is not incompatible with affirmative action goals.

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