Assessing essential skills to recruit and train

Calgary college’s testing tool emerging as a standard
By Conrad Murphy
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/18/2005

Essential skills, the foundational skills that make all other training and development possible, are quickly becoming recognized by HR professionals as critical to successful recruiting and training of employees.

The Test of Workplace Essential Skills (also known by the acronym TOWES, which rhymes with “cows”) is one of the tools being used in this critical process.

Developed at the Bow Valley College in Calgary, TOWES is an assessment of three important essential skills: reading text, document use and numeracy.

Test-takers assume the role of a worker who must process information embedded in an authentic workplace document — forms, labels, safety information and so on — and use that information to complete a task and solve a problem.

TOWES and recruiting

One of the challenges HR professionals continue to face, now and in the future, is how to assess the level of essential skills in potential and current employees. For that purpose, they may consider using TOWES.

For example, the job of shipper and receiver requires reading text, document use and numeracy skills at levels 2, 2 and 3 respectively. That’s according to the federal government’s Essential Skills Research Project, which has developed skills profiles for about 200 occupations, using a five-level scale for nine categories of essential skills.

The TOWES form G2 will be a suitable assessment tool to use for this job, in that it discriminates most accurately at skill levels 2 and 3. The TOWES test is a formal, thorough assessment that requires between two and two-and-a-half hours to complete.

Once the tests are completed, results are issued in two sets of reports. To ensure fairness and equity, individual test-takers receive their own scores on the three scales. Their reports will also provide them with background information and references to the TOWES website for additional information.

Test administrators receive group reports. The group report contains results for all the applicants who were assessed for the competition. The group report also breaks down the five-level scale into a 500-point scale to provide a more detailed picture of the skill levels among the applicants. The HR professional will know if an applicant is near the top or the bottom of a scale, how the applicant scores in relation to the other job applicants, and how an applicant fares compared to the requirements of the occupation.

The HR professional is then able to consider all TOWES scores along with other information gathered during the hiring process. The application, resumé, interview and reference checks can be used to determine if the candidates have the other essential skills. For example, recruiters may pose questions around a candidate’s ability to think or to work with others during the interview and reference checks.

This approach of looking at both the formal essential skills assessment such as TOWES and the informal data gathered during the recruitment process provides the HR professional with a fairly complete picture of the skills of potential candidates.

TOWES and training

The tight labour markets in various regions across Canada are making it increasingly difficult for some organizations to hire people with the needed skill sets. Organizations may be forced to bring in under-skilled workers because of the increasing shortage of skilled workers. If a manager is unable to recruit an employee with the required skills, then workplace training may be a solution.

TOWES test results provide information about the gaps in an existing skill set in employees. A manager will know that the skills required for the shipper/receiver are level 2 for reading text, level 2 for document use and level 3 for numeracy. If a candidate scores 2, 1, 2 respectively, the results indicate that the person needs training in using document and numeracy skills.

The manager may then turn to the local college for remedial assistance or choose to develop a training program internally.

Bow Valley College offers two kinds of remedial training programs for TOWES: a hard-copy 60-hour curriculum and an online version recently developed. There are 35 colleges across Canada that distribute the hard-copy curriculum.

Customizing TOWES

For jobs that are not easily compared to national occupational standards, organizations may opt to develop a customized test and curriculum.

TOWES can send especially trained essential skills profilers into an organization to create custom essential skills profiles. The profilers interview a cross-section of employees within an occupation group to determine the kind of tasks required on a daily basis.

The profilers also collect a selection of company documents that workers use to complete these tasks. The profilers then determine the level of skill required by examining both the task and the documents required to complete it. Then the test design teams search the TOWES database for test items that reflect the skills levels required for the tasks and documents of a similar nature. The design team will also create two new problem sets using the company’s documents. The same process can be used to add items to the online preparatory curriculum.

As we move into the future, human resource professionals are learning more about essential skills and its relationship to a productive workforce. TOWES is quickly becoming recognized as the tool of choice in the recruitment and training of employees.

Conrad Murphy is director of TOWES. Conrad may be reached at (403) 410-3200 or at For more information, visit

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