Demetrius Thomas was raised by his grandmother in Killeen, Texas. With the help of financial aid, he made it into college—but not out. He lost his scholarship and got dismissed from the university after going home mid-semester to help his aunts and cousins move from their house when they were evicted in the aftermath of the death of his grandmother. "It was a huge blow," he says.
He eventually moved to Austin and took up serving and bartending. He never went looking for trouble, but takes full accountability for getting mixed up in drugs. Now, two years after a mandatory rehab stint, he’s still clean and trying to turn his life around. "I want to grow and build and do something that I love," he says, "not do something that depletes me." He applied, got into, and put himself through Austin Coding Academy, taking breaks between semesters to save up for tuition. Thomas’s programming teacher recently told him that a big part of getting hired is personality. "I’m acing that," he says, which is true—he’s got an attractive smile and the charm to go with it.
But with a criminal record and no college degree, landing that first interview was difficult to imagine. Then, in June, he had a serendipitous encounter while waiting tables at one of his two restaurant jobs. A patron, after hearing that Thomas had learned front-end development, invited him to interview for a job and offered him his first freelance work in the field. "He went out on a limb," says Thomas. "But it’s going really well now."
Demetrius’s story is an exception that proves the rule: Applications usually come before interviews. And even though research has shown that resumes aren't the best predictor of who you should hire, the human resources department continues to rely on them (at least for the 6.25 seconds, on average, that someone spends looking at each resume). That's in part because no one has come up with an alternate solution—until now.
Scoutible produces immersive video games that assesses players’ cognitive abilities, personalities, and aspects of their psychological profiles in order to match them with jobs they’re well suited for. The company, which is just over a year old and is backed by Mark Cuban and Great Oaks, is currently beta testing a new set of enterprise-level services that will assess top-performing employees, analyze what skills and qualities make them good at their job, and search for candidates that match their profiles—regardless of their socioeconomic background.
"We’ve cemented inequality into our social fabric," says Angela Antony, the founder and CEO of Scoutible, "and my goal is to undo that."
While completing a simultaneous JD and MBA at Harvard, Antony found that from Ivy Leagues to community colleges, people perceive their career opportunities not by their skill sets or abilities but rather by their socioeconomic context: what their parents, neighbors, friends, and classmates do.
More troubling still, most people don’t stray far from the fields they begin working in, so decisions based on herd mentality rather than personal abilities or preferences end up determining entire careers. And while this might play out as unfortunately passionless lives for some Ivy Leaguers, it can mean lifetimes of unmet potential to climb the ladder for community college students.
In the context of these grim findings, and a market in which 46% of hires fail, Antony’s research asked: What structural barriers prevent efficient job matching?
She gives a two-pronged answer: selection and sourcing. Both illuminate mechanisms that hinder upward mobility.
The selection problem: Candidates are filtered based on information we already have about them, which is largely limited to resumes and interviews. Resumes contain information on education and work experience; but work experience is mostly derived from educational pedigree, which is largely determined by socioeconomic background. "Hiring managers use educational brands as a proxy for important underlying traits—such as work ethic or intelligence," Antony says. But pedigree is overrated, and just because a skill is not on a resume doesn’t mean someone doesn’t have it. And during interviews, the salient traits are the visible ones: affability, gender, race, or extroversion, and unconscious biases run amok in perception.
The sourcing problem: 80% of jobs are unadvertised. Those most likely to hear about jobs are the people who already have top-level jobs or are in top-level networks. Save for the serendipitous encounters like the one Thomas had, the "network effect compounds socioeconomic bias in the hiring market," says Antony.
To fix those two problems, Antony built Scoutible. Cognitive traits—including processing speeds, decision-making styles, risk tolerance, and activity-switching agility—are twice as effective at predicting job performance as work experience or interviews, according to a 2002 study by Herbert Heneman and Timothy Judge. Nothing on the market had been able to glean this data without batteries of psychological tests and cognitive exams. The vision is that anyone can play Scoutible games any time for free, and use it as a way to enter the job market.
If successful, Scoutible would bring qualified candidates without robust networks into talent pools for the jobs they wouldn’t otherwise hear about. It would mitigate the role of unconscious biases in hiring. It would give the opportunity for candidates to show their true skills regardless of the pedigree of the educational institution they attended. These feats certainly constitute a meaningful wrench thrown into the social inequality machine. But are they enough?
If the goal is to increase upward mobility, then there are likely more crucial points in which to intervene in the poverty cycle. There's a wealth of research suggesting that environmental factors play huge roles in determining the kinds of abilities and qualities that Scoutible measures. Antony recognizes Scoutible’s own limitations: "There’s a question of how far back we can or should intercept," she acknowledges. "Should we help high school students get accepted to college? Before that? These are questions we're exploring."
These are unavoidable questions because while pedigree may be overrated, a quality education is not. While there are the rare success stories—like the kid from a small Texas town who was raised by his grandmother who turns into a self-motivated coding student and lands a job while waiting on tables—most never even make it into the first interview.
Thomas is working his new freelance gig while still waiting on tables at two restaurants, finishing his community service 12 hours a week, and building two websites for his portfolio. He just put in his two-week notice at one of his restaurants to focus on getting the work he wants.
"I’m not nervous," he says, "But I’m not overly confident. I just know what I want to do."
Maybe he should try this new game from Scoutible.