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Improving personnel management with ACT’s WorkKeys® program.

American manufacturers are in a paradoxical situation, according to Pat Hayes, CPP, founder and chair of Fabric Images Inc. in Elgin, Ill. “They face an enormous amount of applications for each job posted, but also say that it’s harder than ever to find appropriately skilled, reliable employees,” he says.

But Hayes thinks that WorkKeys®, a job skills assessment program developed by ACT (the same company that produces the famous college entrance exam), can partially unravel this paradox.

How WorkKeys works

Launched by ACT in 1991 to address a perceived decline in work readiness around the U.S., WorkKeys is actually quite simple. A job seeker (or a potential job seeker, like a high school student) takes three 55-minute assessments: one for Applied Mathematics, one for Reading for Information, and one for Locating Information—“the three skills that 80 percent of all jobs demand,” says Paul Scianna, vice president of business development for ACT’s Workforce Development division. The test-taker then receives a score—or “level”—between zero and seven for each assessment, which can then be taken to a potential employer as proof of core job skills.

In 2006, responding to the need for a national work readiness standard, ACT introduced the National Career Readiness Certificate™ (NCRC) to the WorkKeys program. Test-takers who achieve Level Three in all three categories earn a bronze NCRC; Level Four earns silver, Level Five earns gold, and Level Six earns a platinum certificate.

Potential employees and employers can compare the assessment scores with core requirements for a particular job. Accountants need a “6 5 5,” for example: a Level 6 on the Applied Mathematics assessment, Level 5 on the Locating Information assessment, and Level 5 on the Reading for Information assessment. Welding machine setters need a “3 4 3,” order fillers a “3 4 4,” truck drivers a “4 5 4,” and so on for more than 18,000 jobs.

For Hayes, WorkKeys helps inform decisions made by job-seekers—even those who don’t achieve a bronze NCRC

“A job-seeker automatically knows what skills need to be improved to be considered for a particular position,” says Hayes. “Even better, he or she knows which of their current skills are transferable to a different job.” A carpenter with a gold NCRC can show that he or she has the core skills to work in the seemingly unrelated field of quality control, an example that Hayes got from a real (and successful) hire made by a plastics company in Elgin.

Employers also benefit from WorkKeys. With an objective measure of a candidate’s core capabilities, “they can take a lot of guesswork out of hiring decisions,” says Scianna. Moreover, having employees take WorkKeys assessments “can help identify areas in a workplace where more education and training are needed,” says Hayes.

Taking the guesswork out of hiring has very real financial benefits, says Scianna. “Employers are constantly telling me that WorkKeys speeds up hiring, reduces turnover, and puts new hires in a position to be productive more quickly,” he says. Hayes reports that a manufacturer in Elgin went from 12 turnovers a year—in a department of 18—to one after adopting WorkKeys in the hiring process. “They estimated savings in the millions,” he says.

Since 1991, ACT has expanded WorkKeys to include five other job skill assessments, three “soft skills” assessments that measure workplace attitudes and behaviors, and assessments specific to the health care workforce. “We’re currently working on assessments for the IT industry,” adds Scianna. He also points out that WorkKeys assessments are buttressed by ACT’s KeyTrain® program, a series of online modules that help job seekers raise their WorkKeys assessment levels.

WorkKeys in Elgin

Hayes first encountered WorkKeys at a conference in 2008. “I had complained to city officials about the poor quality of workers in Elgin, so of course they put me on the Workforce Development Committee,” he recalls. He was so impressed that he organized area business and community leaders to make the assessments available to the local population.

Thanks to a donation from United Way, the three main WorkKeys assessments are now available free of charge at Elgin Community College, and all local high school students graduate having taken those three assessments. The results: more than 2000 high school graduates with NCRCs, more than 15,000 people with NCRCs in Illinois, and a recent visit from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that, according to Hayes, “enabled us to meet with the State Board of Education, which will probably make the main assessments mandatory statewide.” Agencies and nonprofits that help those who are unemployed in Illinois are starting to use WorkKeys as a way to help people return to the workforce.

An expanding program

Hayes hopes that state of Illinois will soon join 40 other states and cover the cost of the WorkKeys assessments. “Over 70 businesses in Elgin recognize the NCRC,” he says, “and there is no reason every manufacturing community in Illinois can’t be the same.”

Scianna thinks that WorkKeys “is at a tipping point. We currently have over 1.2 million registered NCRCs in our system, and we think we can register 3 million a year by 2013.” He acknowledges that ACT has not marketed WorkKeys aggressively, but also notes that employers promote it better than anyone else. “When they include ‘NCRC recommended’ or ‘We encourage applicants to participate in WorkKeys’ on job-related materials, they find that applicants take the assessments,” he says.

Hayes emphasizes that manufacturers in an area can easily work together to promote WorkKeys (as he and fellow manufacturing executives in Elgin did) so that the local workforce can provide the skilled employees they need.

And the time to do so is now, say Hayes and Scianna. “2010 was the first year that the U.S. didn’t lead the world in manufacturing,” says Scianna, “and yet 80 percent of manufacturers say that they could produce more if they had enough qualified workers.” The potential workers are there, he insists— they just need the type of direction that WorkKeys provides. Hayes agrees. “I don’t believe that we’re just a service industry nation. We can be the global leader in manufacturing for years to come.”

Michael Lotti is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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