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If you're looking to score a new job, prepare to do some work for free.
Take-home assignments are becoming a common part of the job interview process, a way for employers to see if your skills are up to snuff before moving forward with the hiring company.
"It's now 3 out of 10 or 3 out of 15 interviews that come with a take-home assignment" said Thomas B. Moran, CEO of Addison Group, a staffing firm. "A year and a half ago, it was maybe 1 in 10."
Blame it on a tightening job market: The unemployment rate was 3.9 percent in April, after holding at 4.1 percent for the prior six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Though employers are digging deep for workers to fill positions, they're trying to ensure that the candidate can handle the workload before making an offer.
"These companies are coming up with a project to give you an opportunity to show what you're going to bring to the workplace," said Carolyn Betts, founder of Betts Recruiting.
Nevertheless, not all employers are reasonable when they make these requests. Some assignments take multiple days to complete.
Further, there's always the question of what happens if you complete the assignment, don't get the job and the employer uses your work product without paying you.
Here's what you can expect.
What you'll end up bringing home will depend on the nature of the gig.
For instance, when interviewing someone for a recruiter position, Betts will ask the candidate to find three companies the applicant thinks they should recruit for, explain why those companies are a good fit, pick a favorite among the firms and find three recruiting candidates who might be good contenders.
It can take an hour to wrap up this assignment, but some applicants invest up to five hours to complete it, Betts said.
An investment firm might ask a candidate to draft a stock pitch — a write-up detailing why they would pick a certain stock — and prepare a PowerPoint presentation to go with it, said Daniel Solo, president of Second Line Advisors, an executive search firm.
By the time a prospective employer asks for a project, an applicant should be well past the initial screens for the process and should already be a strong candidate for the job.
"If you're going to ask someone to do a lot of work, you have to make sure that they're a good fit on all sides," said Betts.
These assignments should take up to two to three hours to complete, recruiters said. It should be a task that's reflective of what the employer would normally want if that person were hired.
"The takeaway from the candidate's experience is an understanding of what they are getting themselves into," said Solo. "The intensity of it has a lot to do with what you might expect as an employee."
Companies can cross the line when it comes to requesting this work.
In one case Solo handled, a hedge fund requested a candidate to draw up a financial model — which can require extensive work in Excel — and to write a report to accompany it.
It was a 30- to 40-hour project assigned on Labor Day weekend, and the applicant needed to submit the completed product on the actual holiday, Solo said.
There was no pay for the assignment, and the candidate didn't get the job.
Applicants facing a take-home project that's onerous to complete need to think deeply about whether they're a fit for the company.
An employer with unrealistic expectations in the interview process will probably be just as demanding on a day-to-day basis.
"That assignment gave them an indication of what kind of place this is," Solo said of the hedge fund applicant. "But someone who really wants that job and feels it might be the right move for them will do it."
If you're faced with a take-home assignment as part of the interview process, consider these questions as you decide how to proceed:
"There is a fine line between seeing how the candidate thinks and getting them to produce a little work to see if it matches what you're looking for, as opposed to doing a whole day's worth of work for output so that maybe the candidate gets the job," said Betts.
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