Assessments: useful but tiresome

During most of my job applications, assessments which test intelligence have given me a hard time. I like to think that I possess above average intelligence when compared to the average university graduate. I have an average grade of 7,8 for my master’s degree, a grade of nine for my master’s thesis and a publication of that master’s thesis in a scientific journal. Not something which the average master’s degree student has, right? The assessment results don’t agree though: some judge me to be a weak candidate and others an average candidate compared to others with a master’s degree. What does that make me? Did simple hard work contribute more to my above-average academic results than intelligence? Why is there such a discrepancy between my assessment scores and my academic results? Are assessments nonsense?

I can only answer the last question for now. It’s tempting to slip into cognitive dissonance mode and consider assessments an unsuitable method to select job applicants. When I discussed this with others, such as my university’s career advisers, they often voiced similar sentiments. However, scientific studies are unambiguous: intelligence is the most accurate predictor of job performance (Schmidt & Hunter 2004). Also, the combination of an intelligence test with either a work sample test, an integrity test or a structured interview is the most valid and useful way to predict job performance (Schmidt & Hunter 1998). These are facts we can’t deny.

But I keep thinking, shouldn’t there be a causal relationship between intelligence and academic results? Yes, intelligence and achievement motivation are the most important predictors of academic success, according to Busato, Prins, Elshout and Hamaker (2000). Then why not just ask candidates for their academic grades instead of having them take an assessment for, say, € 30 for every candidate? Of course, if they would actually look at my grades the odds would be much more in my favor. I’ve asked this in the past to an HR employee, they thought that (standardized) assessments allowed them to compare candidates more fairly. There is a lot to be said for that: lecturers at a university grade open-ended answers to exam questions. When they grade bachelor and master theses, even more variables come into play which can influence their objectivity. On the contrary, assessments contain a huge amount of multiple choice questions for which results are calculated automatically.

I do not think it is good thing however to discount academic results entirely. So far I’ve experienced far too many job application procedures which suffer from assessment tunnel vision. Don’t get a good score on your assessment? Away with you then. They don’t seem to consider academic performance in the equation, which would make their judgement more balanced. These assessments are taken in the space of an hour or two and can yield bad results if the candidate is having a bad day. Academic results are the results of years of work.

Finally, what is really tiring me is that these days, you need to take an assessment for almost every job. If you say to the HR employees you can provide them with results of a previous assessment, they often insist that you take their company’s different assessment. I have a suggestion: design an (inter)national standard intelligence test which is to be taken by every student at their educational institution before they enter the labor market. Forbid the use of non-standard intelligence tests on pain of death. Put a lot of psychologists and assessments bureaus out of work in the process and give those who apply for jobs some peace of mind.

Evaluation of job applications, 2012 to 2015

In my previous post I mentioned I got a job with FRISS on 23 June 2015. After a trial period, I received an annual contract, my first one ever. I’ll be eternally grateful to FRISS for pulling me out of the financial insecurity and uncertainty with my temporary contract at OGD. Before that, I had applied for plenty of other jobs since my graduation in August 2012. Let’s review these job applications.

The kind of jobs I applied for was highly variable. To mention some recurring categories: traineeships (management, IT, financial and other), consultant (often IT), policy advisor, PhD’s in Public Administration, personal assistant to politicians, service desk employee, service manager, service level manager, service delivery manager.

I’ve made an spreadsheet to keep track of all my job applications with application dates, deadlines and response dates. I’ve also listed the results of my efforts. I think I’ve tracked almost all job applications, perhaps not the earliest. So let’s see the statistics.

In approximately three years I applied for 106 jobs. Of these 11 were open applications (not aimed at a specific vacancy). During 8 application procedures I had to take an assessment: for 5 assessments I failed, for 3 I succeeded. The applications resulted in 19 job interviews (a share of 18% of the total).

Some of the job application procedures also included inhouse days. On these days you participate with other applicants in a program which might include visits to customers of the company or an introduction to company by its employees. Even though it didn’t get a job with these companies, I generally have positive memories about these events. EVG Start, a company training employees for posting at IT companies, is a good example. They had an inhouse day at a data center and a useful exercise on presentation skills.

Unfortunately, there are more companies which treat job applicants like trash. TOPdesk for example. The job interview I had with them was my second since I graduated. Due to a combination of inexperience and nerves I botched the interview. As I expected, I was not accepted for the job. Yet, when I applied a year later for a totally different job posting, I was told they would not consider my application because I had not made a good impression a year ago. In my reply I acknowledged that I had not made a good impression then and appealed to the possibility that people can change, especially after a year, but they would not have any of it. TOPdesk was my only experience with an HR department which brands you for life.

The most ridiculous and downright stupid attitude was shown by the HR employees of KPN. When I applied for their management traineeship which required an academic master’s degree, I was told they only accepted candidates who possess a VWO secondary education degree. No consideration was giving to the fact that my academic achievements were above average. In the Netherlands, VWO gives access to university. I took a different route and got a HAVO secondary education degree, then went to a university of applied science, then to a university. Whether you have HAVO or VWO degrees doesn’t matter, a master’s degree from a university is the same end result for everyone. This was too difficult for KPN’s HR department to comprehend. I was infuriated. If I was not good enough for KPN, I decided they were not good enough for me. I quickly canceled my mobile network and internet subscriptions with KPN’s subsidiary companies. They will never receive another cent from me.

New job at FRISS

On 23 June 2015 I signed a contract with FRISS for a job as Support Engineer. I started work at 1 September and still enjoy my work. I like the informal culture and all the nice colleagues. FRISS is still a young company, reminiscent of a start up. This gives more flexibility than an older, more formalised organization. In FRISS taking ownership of issues is welcomed, which I greatly appreciate and take advantage of.

Of course, it’s not all moonlight and roses. While I had grown used to TOPdesk in previous jobs, FRISS uses the software of AllSolutions, a small Dutch company. Its software is an ERP system, a jack of all trades and a master of none. We use it for financial administration, projects and service management (issue tracking system), but except for a few persons the vast majority of employees isn’t satisfied with it. I think it’s wholly inadequate for service management when compared to more refined software from competitors. This software is the equivalent of giving a chef in a restaurant a blunt knife. Due to the lock-in and difficulty of migrating to something better, I’ll have to endure it for the foreseeable future.

Another disadvantage is that the commute to work is quite long, three hours for a return journey. Fortunately the public transport connection is quite good, I spend my time in public transport productively with reading the newspaper. A third issue is that there isn’t a single euro for education budget. This is in stark contrast to my former employer OGD, where I got certifications in ITIL and PRINCE2. And on OGD I was on a temporary contract, with FRISS I have a annual contract.

Even with these downsides, FRISS is a company for which I’m motivated to give my best. I look forward to starting up a few projects in the coming months to improve our processes and efficiency.

Worried about sedentary work

For a longer time I’ve been worried about the risks of sedentary work due to the nature of my job in IT. A study published in June 2015 by Buckley et al. (2015) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine confirmed those fears.

Sitting for prolonged periods of time, like many desk workers do, increases the chance of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes significantly. Even if you do perform enough moderate to intensive physical activity outside of working hours, such as sports, you don’t prevent the damage incurred by continuous sitting for long periods during working hours.

I was already slightly aware of this. That’s why I always take a walk outside (while eating at the same time) for 30 minutes during the afternoon break at my current job. I do so with a small dedicated group of colleagues, but the majority of the other colleagues just seat themselves at the restaurant inside the office building for the whole break. Apart from that break, I do notice that I often sit non-stop for two or three hours at my desk while I work. I urgently want to change this now that I’ve realized the gravity of the problem after reading the study. The guidelines given by the study are that you stand or move for at least two hours, preferably four, in the office.

One solution mentioned in the study is using a sit-stand desk. Problem is that my employer has no desire to reserve budget to purchase these. It would also be considered strange if one person is standing in the office while the rest is sitting. I should probably just take a regular break every hour and walk the stairs to the third floor back to the first. But a sit-stand desk would allow me to avoid sitting without having to interrupt my work. I will press my wish for a sit-stand desk more when I might get to work for a different employer.

My career versus the crisis

I still need to catch up with blog posts. Even though this post is no longer relevant because I started with a new job in September 2015, I felt I still had to share my thoughts on career prospects from before that month, around May 2015.

When I started the fourth year of high school, the head teacher gave all students an inspiring speech. He showed a photo of a mountain and told us we were close to making it to the summit. “When you reach the summit, you will see taller mountains to be climbed in the distance”, he said. Those mountains were tough to ascend for me at times. During my first years of higher education, I almost got buried by an avalanche and was close to abandoning the climb. Someone even told me I would not be able to climb the most challenging mountain in sight. With my perseverance I did manage to complete the ascent of that mountain after all in August 2012. I found a postgraduate degree in Public Administration on the summit there.

From the top, I could see Career Mountain, which became my new goal. I didn’t expect it to be easy, but after my past achievements I was confident I could climb it without too much difficulty. While making my way to the mountain’s base, I was surprised to find myself descending towards Crisis Valley instead, where the Lost Generation languishes. Their weeping and gnashing of teeth grows louder as time passes on.

I’m disappointed and angry with my current career development. It’s basically non-existent. During my studies I got a part time job at OGD, an IT company. Since I graduated, I’m still employed by them on a flexible contract to do temporary work in IT. Since 2012 I still work as a service desk agent or assistant system administrator, because opportunities to get a job more suitable to my level of education didn’t work out. I might have gotten an annual contract for the work I currently do if I hadn’t been so optimistic about my chances of finding more interesting work elsewhere. I didn’t negotiate well with Human Resources either. But I want to emphasize that I’m actually very grateful to them. On their education budget, I acquired certifications in ITIL and PRINCE2. Without them, I would have had more difficulty in finding work and wouldn’t have gained valuable experience.

Each time I look at LinkedIn and see how other people I know from university did manage to land good jobs, I turn green with envy. When read in Intermediair, a Dutch magazine dedicated to career-building, how much people with specific jobs make or how quickly they found their job after graduating, I grow very jealous. Both activities are guaranteed to devastate my optimism and state of mind for one day.

I experience a complex, contradictory collection of emotions. I feel inferior and worthless compared to others who do have an annual contract while I have to suffer with the uncertainty of a flexible contract. On the other hand I feel superior to them when I scrutinize their profiles on LinkedIn. When I see spelling errors or notice how they landed great jobs with dubious, unrelated degrees like language studies and such, I content myself with the thought that they must be idiots who do not deserve such jobs.

Fortunately, my rational side never allows the emotional side to take over. Even though it’s hard and confrontational, I continue to read LinkedIn profiles of others to determine how I could learn from their accomplishments. Sometimes I ask them for advice. I use my network and request people I know if they can help me with circulating my resume, which is reasonably successful so far. Reflecting on my performance with job applications, I’ve determined that my application letters are good, but passing assessments with intelligence tests can be a problem. My greatest weakness is that I’m not convincing enough during job interviews. With some trial and error I’ve already gotten better at them, but I want to improve it further with the help of several Human Resources professionals I can count as friends.

However, improving my job hunting skills is harder than it seems. Because I’ve had no alternative other than doing temporary work in IT since I graduated in 2012, I’ve now reached a point where I’m no longer eligible for traineeships. In their desire for blank slates, recruiters demand that you have no more than a few years of work experience and that you are a recent graduate. Neither apply to me anymore, and increasingly my job applications are being rejected based on this argument. I argue that my work experience should not be considered because it’s all temporary work rather than a real job, no different from a part time job for students. The recruiters don’t care about my arguments, and why should they if they can choose from a steady supply of recent graduates? At the same time, my experience gained with temporary work is often not sufficient when I apply for jobs which are not traineeships and do require relevant experience. I’m between a rock and a hard place.

The only viable way to escape from this no-win situation is to forget about landing a traineeship and gain more relevant experience. I’ve made important strides in this regard: I’ve acquired certifications in ITIL and PRINCE2, with the ambition to get a Lean Six Sigma certificate in the future. As the Secretary of the Board for the South Holland branch of Dutch Green party I’ve gained experience with organizing events. I’ve continued to contribute plenty of content to the English Wikipedia. All these activities illustrate my skills, but will it be enough to convince the recruiters?

Some have told me it is best to shut up about my difficulties in the job market. But I’m done with keeping quiet, I want to tell the truth. We’re all human and every person has to deal with adversity in life. If you are a recruiter and conclude I’m unworthy of employment at your company because I still haven’t found a decent job since I graduated in 2012, I don’t want to work for your company in the first place. There are many people like me, maybe even worse off because they chose to study for degrees like Art History, who have a hard time in the job market. Don’t discard them because they were forced to do irrelevant temporary work due to the crisis. They do not need to be treated differently from starters, even if they are approaching their thirties and have more work experience. In fact, all the difficulty they face in the job market has probably made them more resilient than those people who come fresh out of university and manage to find a job within a month or two.

There is only one certainty for me, that I will persevere in my search for a real job. I’ve been telling this myself for almost three years now, but what good will pessimism do? Always keep thinking positively. It’s understandable I’m envious of colleagues with a better job and contract, but one of those is physically handicapped and another lost his girlfriend to cancer. In that perspective I should be content with my life, everything is relative.

Completed the Rotterdam Marathon of 2015

In 4 hours and 48 minutes, on Sunday 12 April. On one hand I’m satisfied that I’ve managed to attain this achievement, certainly after an injury prevented me from participating in 2014. On the other hand I’m disappointed with my time.

Because I was not unemployed or partially employed during the first months in 2015, I had to practice in the evening. Because it can be hard to see where you place your feet in the darkness I didn’t run on my bare feet like in 2014. After a few weeks of practice I decided to run barefoot during daylight on a Saturday. This turned out to be a bad decision because my feet were covered with blisters after 20 kilometers. Without practice my feet had become unaccustomed to barefoot running, obviously. When my feet had recovered, I decided to compromise: I would run the marathon on Xeroshoes Amuri Z-Trek minimalist sandals.

I had also tried the Amuri Cloud model during practice. A 20 kilometer run went fine, but I felt the strap connecting to the sole between the big toe and long toe was uncomfortable because it could cause to much friction if the straps were adjusted poorly. Adjusting the straps also required too much stops during the start of the run. The Amuri Z-Trek model turned out to be easier to adjust and served me well when I ran shorter distances with them, like 10 kilometers.

However, during the marathon itself it became clear that the strap of the Amuri Z-Trek sandals located just above the toes was causing too much friction as well. No amount of sports tape could prevent it, as that was pulled loose by the friction too. After approximately thirty kilometers I had to go to a first aid station to fix the bleeding.

Of course I’m very disappointed with XeroShoes. After some communication with the retailer the conclusion was that a smaller size would have helped, even though I had measured my size correctly. I don’t want to use sweaty shoes and insist on using minimalist sandals, but Xeroshoes is hard. Maybe I’ll try a smaller size of the Z-Trek model in the future, but since I completed the Rotterdam Marathon I can count my runs on one hand. And for those runs I used shoes. Because the Xeroshoes failed me I’ve been so demotivated that I almost gave up running completely.

As for the marathon itself, I ran the first 30 kilometers in 2 hours and 52 minutes. After that it went downhill. My ego had a hard time seeing much older men and short women overtaking me. I think I was more fit in 2014 as I had gotten more practice then. For 2015 I was naive to follow a schedule which advocated that shorter practice runs (less than 30 kilometers) could prepare the complete marathon. On top of that I didn’t follow it accurately.

Maybe I will run another marathon in the future to achieve a better time. Coincidentally the 2016 Rotterdam Marathon takes place today, but I’m volunteering as a traffic controller. I want to return the favor to the volunteers who handed me water and patched up my feet. To the English speaking participant (number 16069) who encouraged me when my spirits were low after the 30 kilometer point. To the public which cheered the runners to push on. The marathon makes us experience an amazing sense of community in Rotterdam, an experience which I want to contribute too.

This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein should be considered one of the champions of the Green movement. Her book This Changes Everything is excellent in exposing the harsh truth that we are on a collision course with our planet’s climate.

This book is very depressing. And rightly so: in most chapters we are told how we exploit our planet and are addicted to fossil fuel. We place profit above conserving our environment and wage war on the climate in the process. Unbridled capitalism is the culprit. We always want more and more wealth and luxury and are incapable of restraint, to be satisfied with less. Of course there is a positive message as well about change, the rise of a movement which aims to save the climate.

But even so, I’m still pessimistic. As the secretary of GroenLinks (the Dutch Green Party) in South Holland, a few of my fellow board members always eat meat when we have dinner before our meetings. I’ve noticed snacks with meat being served at events organized by our party. If even these people don’t understand the impact of cattle rearing on our climate, how will the average Joe ever understand? It’s the same with air travel.

I read the book while I was on a winter sports holiday in Austria with my family. I never really liked winter sports because of the mass tourism aspects of it, but as I read the book I realized it was harmful to our climate as well. Huge amounts of trees need to be cleared from mountain slopes to make ski slopes. All those lifts, piste caterpillars and snow guns require a lot of fossil fuels. Of course there are much more examples.

Even though I’m observing our collective excesses, I’m to blame as well. That is why I want to improve on myself, I want to drastically decrease the pressure I exert on the climate. Even though I eat almost no meat anymore, I consider going completely vegan. If possible I will never use aircraft which run on fossil fuel anymore and use the train and other public transport instead. The latter might not be possible because I have to compromise with my girlfriend Stephanie. Nor does she want to sell her car, but at least we can switch to an electric car. I want to make our next house energy neutral.

Thesis finally published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal

I thought the day would never come, but on 26 March 2015 my modified master thesis was finally published in Government Information Quarterly, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Two and half years after I submitted it for my graduation as MSc in Public Administration in August 2012.

After graduating I used several months to rewrite the thesis as a publishable article together with my thesis supervisor dr. Dimiter Toshkov, who is also the co-author. We then submitted to the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. This is a very prestigious journal so we were not surprised it was rejected for publication, but we benefited from the feedback of the reviewers. We then resubmitted to Government Information Quarterly.

The wheels of academic publishing are known to turn very slowly, but the period of the time we had to wait for a verdict was exceptional: more than half a year if I remember correctly. After asking for information it turned out that our paper had gotten lost in the process. Fortunately, it was eventually accepted for publication after some minor modifications. I wish the process had been faster so I could have taken advantage from mentioning a scientific publication on my CV more soon.

Reflecting on it all, I’m very proud we managed to get this published. There aren’t many graduate students who get to do so. I learned R and the required statistical knowledge relatively easily, even though I used to have an aversion of statistics in the past.

The perfectionist inside my head is still slightly dissatisfied, telling me that I could have given even more thought to the subject and method of my research. That it would have been even better with more survey responses. The layout could have better. But the bottom line is that a temperate sense of satisfaction triumphs over my hot-headed perfectionism. Ten years ago, when I was an academic failure with serious procrastination issues, this achievement would have been but a dream.

It’s a pity the article is not Open Access, but behind the publisher’s paywall. Fortunately, you can find my own pre-print on my website. The source files for LaTeX and R are attached to the document for those who a curious about how the statistical analysis was performed with R and how the paper’s layout was done with LaTeX.

Regarding LaTeX, I’d like to point out two issues. Documents with two or more columns are too difficult. You need some specific commands to make sure that lines on both columns match vertically. Placement of figures becomes more complicated too, even though I’ve mostly managed with workarounds. If I would write my article again, I would take a serious look at Scribus, a free software desktop publishing application. Unlike LaTeX it follows the “what you see is what you get” principle. It seems to make several things much easier to do than LaTeX.

A right-wing and left-wing plan for dealing with boat refugees

Due the increasing amount of boat refugees coming to the European Union as of late, the the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) proposed on 22 March this year that we completely close the outer borders of the EU for asylum seekers. According to them asylum seekers are costly for us, they facilitate human trafficking and it’s hard to separate legit refugees from economic migrants and terrorists. The massive influx of refugees would cause societal breakdown in the EU. Refugees should be housed in their own region and be able to build a new life there, possibly with aid from the EU.

While I am sympathetic to some of the reasoning of the proposal, it lacks solidarity and is short-sighted. In some cases regional capacity for hosting refugees is already stressed to the limit. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan hosted respectively 1,59 million, 1,15 million and 654.100 refugees according to the UNHCR Global Trends report on forced displacement in 2014. Lebanon is even the country with the largest amount of refugees compared to its own population in the world, with 232 refugees per 1.000 inhabitants. That’s insane and makes it obvious to me that our sense of solidarity obliges us to help out with hosting Syrian refugees. During the debate in the House of Representatives about the plan, it was claimed that even 95% of refugees are already hosted in their own region. Also, legal experts were quick to point out that the VVD’s plan would violate international treaties, making it difficult to implement. It was clear that except for the right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV), there was no support for the plan.

My own party GroenLinks, the Dutch Green Party, responded with an alternative proposal. It boils down to five points: preventing that more refugees drown, allowing refugees to apply for asylum while outside the EU, improve facilities to house refugees in their own region, better distribution of refugees within the EU and structural solutions for the refugee problem.

The alternative plan of my own political party sounds good, but it refuses to acknowledge the existence of economic migration. And while they might not form a significant part of the refugees, economic migrants do exist. On several news reports I’ve seen refugees from Pakistan. Yes, there’s a war in North-West Pakistan, but millions of Pakistanis are apparently able to lead relatively peaceful lives in other regions of their country. I think Pakistan should be able to help it’s own internal refugees, possibly with international aid.

Also consider that the public housing sector in the Netherlands can’t cope with the demand exerted by all the refugees which are entitled to housing. They practically receive housing for free because they are likely to live on welfare. They are given precedence over the Dutch citizens who are on the waiting list for public housing. The obvious reason refugees seek asylum in Western Europe is that they are entitled to much more aid than in neighboring states in their region. While I agree that we should spend more on foreign aid for refugees, I think we should make our public services for asylum seekers more sober simultaneously. I don’t feel the plan of GroenLinks addresses these issues sufficiently.

I totally agree that we should be generous to refugees from Syria. But they can be given temporary asylum in order to force their return when the Syrian Civil War is over. They can be housed in more sober asylum centers or intermodal container housing instead of public housing.

First New Year’s dive ever

On 1 January this year I participated in a New Year’s dive for the first time ever. I had already been inspired in 2012 to do this. Ideally I wanted to go to the beach of Scheveningen near The Hague, where the largest event was organized for 10.000 people. Because I live in Rotterdam, I decided to go to a local event organized at the Kralingse Plas, a large lake north of Rotterdam’s center.

In total there were probably thirty people who got in the water and an equal amount of people who preferred to stay warm. It was well organized by the local ice skating club, they even had a diver in the water for safety. It should be noted that according to the science, the activity is not a problem for the average healthy person. However, people with heart or respiratory diseases might not take well to it. Apart from risks, science says it can actually make you feel better if you swim in such cold water regularly.

My experience was positive. When the signal was given after a countdown, the whole group ran into the water. Surprisingly, the water did not feel much colder than when I swam in a different lake during a much warmer day in the autumn. While others just waded through the water and quickly got out, I took the opportunity to swim for a minute or so. When I got out, I felt a very comforting rush of warmth through my body to compensate for the shock of the cold water. I’m not sure what the water temperature in the Kralingse Plas was, but the seawater at Schevening was 7 ℃. Because it’s a lake I expected the temperature was slightly lower.

I liked doing this and will do it again next year. If we have found a home in The Hague then, I can actually join the fun at the beach of Scheveningen. Ideally I’d like to do it more regularly than just New Year’s Day, which would be an option if I’d live closer to a beach or lake.