New Delhi: When skills assessment firm MeritTrac Services Pvt. Ltd launched a programme in October that tested what business school students were learning and vouched for their ability, the initiative just failed to take off.

Benchmarking training: Students taking the MeritTrac test. The tests range from drafting an email to a potential customer in 4 minutes, to speaking on the phone with a grader and answering logic problems.

“It was the beginning of (the) downturn and in October, November, (the interest) was fairly lukewarm," says chief executive Madan Padaki.

Five months later, as even top management schools struggle to find jobs for many of their graduating class, Padaki’s phone has been ringing off the hook.

“In the last two months, we got about 75 institutions that reached out to us, (asking) ‘what can you do to help our students?’," he says.

In good times, companies often used skill-assessment tests to weed out poor candidates as they recruited from colleges and hired dozens at a time. But in one of the worst economic slowdowns in recent memory, institutes are pushing students to take similar tests as a way to promote themselves with potential employers.

“When companies come to campus, we can showcase these results to them and (this) saves companies the initial process screening time," says Sandeep Shenoy, placement coordinator at Manipal Institute of Management, which started using MeritTrac’s tests with its current batch of students.

Recruiters say such third-party tests could help with an initial screening round. “If I have to hire a large number of candidates, I might say to the institute, ‘give me the scores above 40%’," says Sanjay Upadhyay, who handles campus hiring at ICICI Prudential Life Insurance Co. Ltd. “Then I will run my tests again, but I might use it as preparation."

Other assessment companies cite similar interest, particularly at colleges outside the top tier of institutes.

The Professional Aptitude Council, or PAC, which offers tests that measure everything, from Java skills and how well a person understands derivatives to how well a candidate understands what others are telling them, also runs a programme that assesses the capabilities of engineering graduates and records them in a central database for employers to access.

Launched as a pilot in 2005, the programme now tests around 50,000 students from 1,200 campuses in India—many of them outside the top tier of institutes that coveted employers usually visit. Students are then benchmarked against each other, as well as against counterparts in other countries such as China, Singapore and Malaysia.

“Maybe it makes sense to go and pick the brightest from these campuses but it is difficult for me to devote resources to find three of the brightest kids from a pool of 300 in Darbhanga in Bihar," says Guhesh Ramanathan, strategic adviser at PAC. “Now we have it online." Such tests, says Mahendhran (he goes by one name only), placement officer at SA Engineering College in Chennai, helped companies such as Tech Mahindra Ltd and Oracle Corp. hire a dozen of his students last year.

“We can never imagine they (would) ever come through," he says. “In Tamil Nadu, there are 250 colleges. Companies can’t come to all (of these) and the rest of the colleges are left to their own destiny."

PAC also launched a similar programme two months ago for candidates with work experience and has tested around 10,000 professionals so far, says Ramanathan.

Manipal started using MeritTrac’s tests—which range from drafting an email to a potential customer in 4 minutes, to speaking on the phone with a MeritTrac grader and answering more traditional logic problems—with its current batch to first assess areas in which certain students needed help.

Charlotte Rita Pinto, a student at Manipal who took the test, says she scored well in sections that tested for mathematical ability but poorly in the section that focused on written communication skills. “I read newspapers, read books...such things if I do, I can improve my verbal (skills)," she says.

“I got to know where I was lacking," says Macqueen D’souza, Pinto’s classmate. “My English was fine but in maths I was lacking. (It is an) area I need to correct."

Institutes are also using such tests to improve their own curriculum. Manipal, according to Shenoy, is using the scores to divide the batch into smaller classes and provide targeted training based on how well students are doing in these tests. The Symbiosis Institute of Telecom Management in Pune is using MeritTrac’s tests for similar ends.

“Either you can teach or you can assess, and every B-school doesn’t have the expertise to do it in a very systematic manner if you leave it to the faculty," says Symbiosis director Virender Kapoor. “If a student is benchmarked from a third-party review, he becomes serious about decisions and where he can plug in the loopholes."

Companies, too, are using assessment tests in different ways, says Ramanathan.

Six months ago, he says, a technology product company in the telecom sector tested parts of its current workforce. Most of them scored in the range of 60-75 percentile among global test takers and the company used the results to create targeted training programmes.

“It made a difference as far as business is concerned," says Ramanathan.

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