The most recent stop for my wanderings through the back pages of career development theory, research and practice has been Donald Super’s gargantuan Appraising Vocational Fitness: By Means of Psychological Tests. I would like to say that it has been a laugh a minute, but unfortunately this 727 page reference guide to the process of designing, implementing and interpreting psychological tests is a pretty challenging read. This is not to say that it is without value, but rather to note that reading 60 year old technical manuals is probably something for the most dedicated of careers nerds. Thankfully, ich bin ein nerd. So here we go…
Super’s book actually makes a pretty straightforward argument. It is possible, he demonstrates, to use psychological testing and the testing of skills, competencies and potential abilities to identify who would be fit for a particular vocation. This has a two–fold advantage, firstly it serves society by supporting the placing of human resources in appropriate roles/sectors. Secondly, it enables people to gain a more accurate understanding of their own abilities and potential and use this ability to guide them in their vocational choice. Beyond this simple proposition Super basically guides the reader through the technical literature that they will need to engage with testing from either an HR or IAG perspective. As Super puts it “Vocational counselling has two fundamental purposes: to help people to make good vocational adjustments and to facilitate the smooth functioning of the social economy through the effective use of manpower.”
So if you want to know the difference between the Blackstone Typing test, the Minnesota Rate of Manipulation test, the Tweezer Dexterity test, the McAdory Art test, the Seashore Measures of Musical Talents and the Bernreuter Personality Inventory then this is the book for you. Super’s grasp of the variety of tests and understanding of how they can be used to sort a bewildering array of sheep from goats is fantastically impressive. The fact that the book is 60 years old and many of the tests have undoubtedly had their validity challenged (we have, for example, 13 separate mentions of the Rorschach Psychodiagnostic Inkblots) clearly makes it less useful for the contemporary practioner. Furthermore the backdrop to Super’s book is a stable labour market based on full-employment, continuous service and a perceived good match between employers needs and the skills of the workforce. Clearly some of this has changed and even if we accept the validity of the method it is likely to need to be reimagined for the contemporary world.
However, I actually found I had a pretty strong reaction to this book that went beyond the fact that after 60 years it is a little out of date. In amongst the technical specifications about validating tests Super is weaving a utopian vision. It is a utopian vision that unsettles me, but it is a utopia none the less. Round pegs will be slotted into round holes, effectively, efficiently and scientifically. “Perhaps some day” he wistfully imagines, “the dream of a comprehensive battery of tests and of test weights for all the major occupational fields will be realised.” Eventually the testing agenda can become the visible hand that guides the labour market, ensuring that there is a place for everyone and everyone is in their place. For example in his statement that “it is generally assumed that the placement of a student at the proper educational level, one on which he can compete with his peers without undue strain and on which he will be challenged by the need to exert himself in order to master the subject matter, results in better adjustment and greater satisfaction on his part.” Strays rather close to social engineering for my liking with people’s place in the world determined by their performance in psychometric testing.
Super’s book strikes me as very much part of the mid-twentieth century movement for technocratic government. Normally this debate is characterised in terms of state vs. market. On one hand we have the airmen of Shape of Things to Come bringing about a managed world of progress and modernity. On the other this hand this statism and modernity is seen as an inevitable progress towards tyrrany, for example in Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome. You can situate this debate as Keynes vs Hayek or as social democratic post-war consensus vs. Thatcherite individualism. However, Super’s book demonstrates an ideological perspective that doesn’t fit into any of these state/individual, left/right binary oppositions. The state doesn’t figure in his thinking at all (although presumably someone is employing vocational councellors). Rather the triumph of the science and rationality of testing guides the labour market ensuring efficiency, social harmony and individual satisfaction.
Of course, it is worth reflecting that social harmony, individual satisfaction and economic efficiency are not bad things. I think that I would hope that careers work is having a positive impact on all these things. However, while reading Super I kept being reminded of the film Gattaca. As ever, for me, science fiction explains the world better than almost anything else. In the world imagined in Gattaca everyone is slotted into a place based on their genetic profile. The summary of the films message that appears on the promotional poster read “there is no gene for the human spirit” and this perhaps offers me a pointer as to why I found Super uncomfortable reading. My humanism would lead me to believe that people are complex, creative and co-operative and that they will keep changing and always surprise you. Reductive testing regimes are likely to miss the vast potential of humans pigeon-holing them in ways that are ultimately self-defeating for all involved.
I don’t want this to sound like idealistic hippy nonsense. Obviously I recognise that employers have got to develop mechanisms for selection. As Super rightly points out the conventional ones (interviews, CVs etc) are unvalidated and often misleading. A well validated psychometric is likely to be fairer and for at least some people, some of the time, help to select them for more appropriate roles. My concern comes when you try to elevate this to an ideology and a social mission, particularly when it does not critically engage with existing social structures. Super’s book suggests that appropriateness for vocation can be judged by examining personal qualities but ignores the wider social environment within which this judging and matching takes place. Are you more likely to become a manual worker because of your high score in the Minnesota Rate of Manipulation test or because your father was also a manual worker and so was his father? To present a technical solution that ignores these social inequalities runs the risk of simply entrenching and strengthening existing social structures.
So where does this leave careers workers? Super’s descriptions of how to utilise tests during counselling interventions are actually pretty sensitive and sensible. His belief in the creative tension between client centred approaches and the utilisation of more objective testing is worth a read. For me the challenge is to use tests as tools for reflection and self-discovery without allowing them to become deterministic and constraining. There are as many ways to pursue a career and use your skills as there are to skin a cat. Tests should open this up rather than close this down. Finally I think that there is a role for careers workers in providing their clients with the tools to critically analyse the processes of selection. Understanding the processes used by employers, examining the scientific, ideological and pragmatic factors that underlie the use of different tests is the kind of information that might empower our clients to both succeed and to maintain a healthy critical distance from the processes that they are going through.
So who fancies writing “Deconstructing vocational testing”?