There are many unique ways to get things done with your hands, so what is that we are actually seeing when we are watching? My thoughts are its the telltale movements of long muscle memory and self confidence that what we see from across the shop. The question is how can we get this kind of insight during an interview?
Recently I headed up a committee to hire several entry level mechanical technicians. I decided early on that it was important to watch them do something for a few minutes than to try to discover the right skills by just asking questions and listening to answers tailored for our approval. The hope as that even a short demonstration would give us an idea of basic skill and mechanical abilities. I had a little bit of a hard sell on the idea of testing to the rest of the team, but in hindsight they are seeing the value of what this simple evaluation provides. The process has provided some interesting insight into how mechanical minds work and approach different kinds of problems. We have definitely seen some unique methods to complete the tasks we have the candidates demonstrate and learned some things ourselves. The second benefit of the testing was it gave us a way to take some basic measurements to help compare the candidates quantitatively.
The goal in any hiring scenario is to find the best skills and attitude that fit the job requirements from the available pool of talent. I believe that if you hire tough then you can manage easy. What this means is the interview is harder and more intimidating up front but exposes potential weaknesses early. To be clear this is only one tool of many we use to help us make better hiring choices. This evaluation is put on the scale with the rest of the interview process and adds or subtracts some weight to help us make more enlightened selections.
Meet the busy box
The first task is really a warm up for things to come. It is the easiest task for most people to do. We give some verbal instructions which is actually first part of the test. Great skill but no comprehension of the instructions is not a good way to start. The plate is bushed with threaded inserts. Behind the inserts is a plate which limits how far the fastener can be inserted. We ask the subject to start in a particular place and insert fasteners in a simple pattern. Starting with their strong hand they insert the fasteners in the requested pattern. When they complete the pattern, they remove them in the reverse order with the weak hand. You might ask what could we learn from this really simple exercise?
That sums up the mechanical dexterity testing we did. It was very enlightening for us to watch these folks work the problems. The value in getting to see them perform actual work for a short time told us quite a bit about the person and their experience and how they handle stress.
After I created the busy box it tested it on a group of volunteers to collect some baseline data. It helped to refine the instructions and see how established people under low stress performed. The volunteers consisted of people that do this kind of thing every day like technicians, to office people and engineers. I'm looking forward to making a new one up for more advanced level evaluations. It may be interesting to add something that has no solution. Kind of like the Kobayashi Maru test from Starfleet.