September 30, 2002, 12:00 AM

Using the web to peer into the hearts of prospective employees

Web-enabled kiosks in retail locations are attracting higher grade job applicants and streamlining the screening process for overworked store and hiring managers.

In the past few years, retailers have found many uses for the web, from sourcing merchandise in the supply chain to selling direct to customers. Now some are finding that it’s also a good way to screen prospective employees.

Unicru Inc. reports that 38 retailers, including such big names as Kmart Corp., Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., have deployed 13,000 kiosks in stores for accepting job applications. All are networked to Unicru’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters for processing of the applicants’ information, and about a third are web-enabled, Unicru says. The balance are moving in that direction because the web allows for a more graphical and engaging application form.

Retailers are embracing job-application kiosks because they streamline the screening process.

Garden Ridge Inc., a Houston-based chain of big-box home decor and crafts products stores, says the kiosks have allowed the chain to upgrade the quality of its employees. “We had been hiring almost everybody who walked in the door,” says Kevin Rutherford, vice president of human resources.

That was almost literally true. Garden Ridge’s need for employees was so great that it used to hire 50% of its job applicants. Now it rejects 11 for every one it hires. The system went live in Garden Ridge’s chain of more than 40 stores in May. The fact that the application process is so simple and that the information is screened and returned to store managers in real time has attracted a higher quality of applicant, Rutherford says. “So far, it’s been phenomenal,” he says. “Store managers are extremely excited. They’re getting more candidates and not spending so much time interviewing candidates that don’t work out.”

When a prospective employee fills out the application, which takes about 10 minutes and includes personality and skills tests, results are sent electronically to a server at Unicru headquarters, where they’re instantly measured against performance parameters set by Garden Ridge. Within minutes, Unicru’s computer system sends the applicant’s scores back to the store.

Store managers get near real-time notification via a pager alert whenever a highly desirable candidate has filed an application. That way, before the candidate leaves the store, and possibly gets lost to another employer, the store manager can page him or her to set up an immediate interview. “Our stores are about 130,000 square feet, but we find them, offer them a Coke, and spend some time chatting,” says Rutherford. “It happens quite often where they get a job offer right away.”

Simply having the job applicant kiosk in the store appears to be a strong draw for more qualified candidates, who say they like the ease of filling out forms at the self-service kiosk without having to seek out a management office, Rutherford says. Stores promote the kiosks with signs near them. Garden Ridge’s information today moves over a phone line to Unicru, because that is how its stores are equipped. But it plans to move to the web next year.

The kiosk system also integrates job applicant data with back-end office systems, such as payroll and employee benefits. That integration has enabled Garden Ridge to eliminate one payroll clerk’s position per store, Rutherford says.

Garden Ridge so far is using the Unicru system for filling hourly employee positions, but plans to expand to include management candidates who will be able to apply for jobs over Garden Ridge’s corporate web site, hosted and maintained by Unicru, a vendor of hiring management systems. Garden Ridge believes that will make it easy for candidates to apply from outside of the retailer’s operating area of Midwestern and southern states.

Next up: e-learning

In the future, Garden Ridge will also consider using features Unicru is developing for ongoing employee testing and training, Rutherford says. With more than 300 data points already being collected on each applicant, Unicru is working on incorporating neural network technology that will make it possible for the kiosk system to predict job candidate performance based on candidates’ characteristics and long-term job performance, says Chris Reed, Unicru’s vice president of marketing.

In the meantime, Unicru is also developing kiosk-based e-learning systems, using data gathered in kiosk sessions, that will be designed to help employees fill the competency gap between their personal skill levels and the performance levels set by their employers. Such employees would take periodic performance tests at the kiosks, and then take the appropriate e-learning course to reach their goals.

The drive to e-learning makes web-enabling all of Unicru’s machines more urgent, Reed says, because the e-learning applications demand better graphics, more interactivity and more multi-media applications.

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