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Who Says Top Students Make The Best Employees?

Grades reveal very little about human ability. That's why the German Railway's new application process downplays past academic performance.

A DB railway worker in Germany
A DB railway worker in Germany
Daniela Kuhr

MUNICH - Many people realize well after their school days are behind them that learning can actually be fun. Doing practical math or remembering French words, for example, may suddenly seem easy. Perhaps these folks had bad teachers in those subjects, but it's more likely that newfound learning appreciation has more to do with the fact that there's no longer any pressure.

So it seems that school grades have limited value when it comes to getting an accurate picture of a person’s apabilities. That's why Ulrich Weber, the board member in charge of human resources at Deutsche Bahn (DB) has launched an unusual pilot project: a job application process in which school grades take a back seat.

Young people who are applying for an apprenticeship or work/study position for fall 2014 at the German passenger, freight rail and bus company can now take a test online “regardless of the grades on his or her report card,” says a DB spokeswoman. “We encourage everyone interested in applying, without exception, to take the online test.” As with standard application procedures, all test-takers still must provide a CV and their grades.

The test focuses on capabilities that are important for whichever job the candidate is applying. Future track layers, for example, would need to demonstrate a gift for mechanical and technical material, while qualities sought in future railway operations coordinators are conscientiousness and a marked sense of duty.

In the selection process, DB will be focusing on “the personal strengths of the applicant,” Weber says. “Not the best grades but social and cognitive competencies are what determine a successful career.” The online test gives all applicants an equal chance.

The test may also “bring previously undiscovered talents to light that would otherwise have remained hidden,” the HR boss says. Some 300,000 people work for the company worldwide. On average, 8,000 workers leave the company every year, mostly because they’re retiring. Based on this fluctuation alone, DB hires 8,000 new workers every year.

To ensure a qualified workforce, the company has developed various strategies, among them the new application procedure for the 4,000 young people that it trains every year. The goal is not to find “the best and the brightest” but rather those whose talents are a good match for their particular job, Weber says. “A sense of responsibility or talent for understanding technical issues can be more important than good or bad grades in math.”

Other German employers in both the private and public sectors are also considering different hiring approaches. In late 2010, the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency launched a pilot project for anonymous job applications. Five employers — Telekom and cosmetics giant L'Oreal among them — participated by accepting applications for certain jobs that were not accompanied by applicant photos, and contained no information about age, gender, background or civil status. Applicants only provided the information about their schooling, job training and work history, and they were invited to offer reasons why they were interested in the position.

Employers were asked to decide based on these criteria alone whether to invite candidates for interviews. Compared to conventional hiring practices, this approach was found to give immigrants and women a better shot at job interviews.

Eight German states are now in the process of launching their own projects, says Christine Lüders, head of the Anti-Discrimination Agency, adding that “in the state of Baden-Württemberg, participants are mostly small- and medium-sized companies.” These are companies, Lüders says, that want and need the best people and are therefore open to seeking out the best methods to get them.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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