HR in practice: how NCP used psychometric testing to improve recruitment and reduce staff turnover: ticket to success

Nobody likes getting a parking ticket. So how did one of the largest employers of parking attendants overcome its negative image and manage a huge staff turnover problem? Natalie Cooper investigates.

The business

NCP (National Car Parks) is the UK’s largest commercial car park operator and provider of on-street parking enforcement. Employing more than 3,500 parking attendants, it has more than 40 parking enforcement contracts with local authorities, including the UK’s largest contract, with Westminster City Council.

The challenge

NCP needs to recruit 1,700 parking attendants every year due to an incredible 90% turnover of staff in this role. Annually, the company attracts 17,000 applications, but with only a handful of candidates making it through the first week, it needed to take drastic action to reduce its recruitment costs.

Jonathan Reed, recruitment manager at NCP, says: “For parking attendants, it’s tough on the streets. Not only do they have to deal with public confrontation and aggressive behaviour, but it can also be lonely.”

Reed says that other job skills required include the need for individuals to be highly motivated and self-reliant. “It’s essential for parking attendants to possess great communication skills and offer general help and assistance to the public when needed,” he says.

The company spends about £1,500 to recruit each parking attendant, including the cost of training. Reed and the rest of his team realised that being able to identify the ideal candidate early on in the recruitment process could bring about critical cost savings for the business, as well as improve staff retention levels and the quality and accuracy of their parking enforcement.

NCP turned to software provider Kenexa to devise an online questionnaire to analyse the qualities and personality traits of applicants. The questionnaire involves psychometric testing, which finds out which candidates are most likely to succeed before managers commit themselves to the interview process.

The solution

To make sure the questionnaire was specific to parking enforcement recruitment, two members of Kenexa’s consultancy team spent a few days working with NCP parking attendants to gain an understanding of what the job involved, and how they interacted with members of the public.

It then created an online personality questionnaire that assesses whether applicants possess the attributes necessary for sustained success in the role. This works by measuring a number of personality traits, including social confidence, the ability to keep emotions under control, and discipline.

NCP trialled the questionnaire in a few central London regions where it had the highest staff turnover.

“We monitored those that took the questionnaire against those in other contract regions that hadn’t, and the figures were very encouraging,” says Reed. “The online tests from Kenexa also demonstrate to any prospective employee that we are spending money on recruitment, together with learning and development.”

The questionnaire has since been integrated successfully into the recruitment process, which also includes numerical and verbal reasoning tests and a competency-based interview.

The outcome

This self-selection questionnaire now helps prospective applicants understand the situations they will face in the role, and gives them feedback on their suitability. In this way, candidates can decide whether they wish to take their application further.

“Since we introduced the new selection process we are finding people are staying with the organisation for a lot longer,” says Reed. “It has certainly helped us dig beneath the surface a lot more than we did previously.”

He says the new process is bringing more suitable employees into the business, and when the company bids for new contracts, it also demonstrates that NCP’s recruitment approach is thorough, professional and more successful than its competitors.

“The process demonstrates our commitment to both the public and the local authorities, and towards our own objective of a stable and experienced workforce,” Reed says.

He also says the changes have brought about cost savings to their business and, ultimately, to local authorities and the tax payer.

Looking to the future, NCP is hoping to encourage applicants from Eastern European countries. “With the EU opening up, we think there will be opportunities to attract some very good candidates from the Eastern European market,” says Reed. “People from these countries usually head towards hospitality in the UK, but we want to tap into that pool and show them that with NCP, they can enjoy a very good and prosperous career path.”

If I could do it again…

“There’s nothing much I would really change,” says Jonathan Reed. “We put the system out to trial first in February 2006 with our biggest contracts – including [London boroughs] Westminster, Islington, and Kensington & Chelsea – for five months to see how it would perform.

“I guess we could have changed the speed at which it was rolled out. It’s only in the past two months that we have gone guns a-blazing to roll out the new recruitment system across all other contracts.”

Employee perspective

HR director Chris Gillespie, who has been with NCP since 2001, says the recruitment project was a team effort, but he was responsible for instigating it to reduce levels of staff turnover.

During the project, he worked closely with the recruitment team and Kenexa to link and identify job competencies to the company’s ‘success factors’, to ensure consistency with other recruitment and performance measures.

“HR does not usurp manager responsibility for recruitment,” he says. “Our role is to provide knowledge and tools to enable them do their job better.”

Gillespie says that as a result of the project, he has noticed a higher quality in the calibre of successful applicants, saving a great deal of time through prompt identification without the need for shortlisting or interviews.

“The company continues to expand quickly having seen employee numbers nearly treble in the past few years,” he says. “We are examining extending the online system to other areas – for example, recruiting bus drivers.

“We continuously review everything we do to try and make improvements,” Gillespie adds. “This has in many ways become a mantra for the HR team.”

Guide to refining your selection process in 6 steps

  1. To avoid spending hours interviewing unsuitable candidates, start thinking about processes that really test the personality and skills of potential candidates before they reach interview stage.
  2. Streamline your paperwork and try to cut administration costs as much as possible.
  3. When developing an online questionnaire prior to interview, make sure it is tailor made and specifically matches the requirement for a particular role to filterout applicants who may not have the right aptitude.
  4. Put together a mix of questions so that candidates can’t pre-empt them, and so there are no real right or wrong answers.
  5. Try to find out whether there are any potential hidden costs in your recruitment tools. For example, not all candidates have access to a computer, so NCP offers a paper version, but this takes much longer to process and adds on cost every time.
  6. Get to know all the teams or individuals responsible for implementing the new procedure, and co-ordinate team meetings so that everyone is clued up at all times.

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