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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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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