arjorie Taylor had a challenge. She needed to find a way to communicate to high school students the importance of taking the ACT WorkKeys assessment seriously. As executive director of The Orchard Foundation, the education action arm of the Rapides Foundation in Rapides Parish, Taylor serves as the point person working to implement the ACT Certified Work Ready Communities (CWRC) in nine parishes in central Louisiana.
ACT WorkKeys is a job skills assessment system measuring “real-world” skills identified by employers as critical to job success. WorkKeys are the foundation for earning National Career Ready Certificates (NCRC), portable certifications that individuals earn to demonstrate employability. WorkKeys tests are administered in Applied Mathematics, Reading for Information and Locating Information. In addition to offering ACT career tools to community college students and job-seeking and transitioning adults, Orchard provides Career Ready 101 courses to prepare students to take the WorkKeys. They also offer the opportunity to take the assessment twice during high school for free.
“We found we had to be very creative with our high school students,” Taylor says. “They viewed it as just another standardized assessment.”
Enter the Cenla Jobinator, rescuing teens from lame jobs.
Dressed in costume, the Jobinator visits the region’s high schools to engage students in conversation about their work future and the skills they’ll need to succeed.
“His role is to create a sense of awareness,” says Taylor, who devised the concept with a local marketing team. “He talks with students about not being in lame jobs, like a dog food tester or underwater basket weaver.” Taylor admits the Jobinator was a tough sell to the Rapides Foundation, but he appealed to the audience they needed to reach.
And the Jobinator has done his job. “Since launching WorkKeys in 2011, we now have over 7,000 NCRCs awarded in central Louisiana,” Taylor says. “It’s quite a phenomenal success in a short period of time.” School boards in two parishes, Avoyelles and Rapides, mandated that all high school seniors take Work Keys.
Last year, Avoyelles and Rapides parishes applied to ACT to be part of the pilot CWRC program designed for counties that didn’t have state CWRC involvement. The parishes were accepted and are now traveling down the path to full certification. “In Rapides Parish we’re 94 percent of the way toward certification,” says Taylor. “We already met our goal in the current, emerging and transitioning workforce; we already exceeded the number of NCRCs we had to have. The only area we’re lacking in those two parishes is the employer piece.”
Taylor is getting help from a local employer champion. Gilchrist Construction Co. has written a case study about its success in using NCRC. “Our local companies will listen to the employers we bring in, but it makes a bigger impact when it’s one of their peers,” say Taylor, “especially when it impacts the bottom line.”
Partnering With a Tech Giant
Arkansas also uses a portable credentialing program, Arkansas Career Readiness Certificate (CRC), based upon WorkKeys. Over 54,000 Arkansas CRCs have been issued, but there’s a new tool in the workforce tool kit. Arkansas is the first state in the nation to offer the Microsoft IT Academy (ITA) to job seekers. The Arkansas Microsoft ITA is a partnership between Microsoft, the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services (ADWS) and the state’s Department of Education and Department of Career Education.
Microsoft ITA courses are available to adults at select Arkansas Workforce Centers. Once the coursework is completed, participants take a proctored exam at an Arkansas Adult Education Center to complete the certification process. Microsoft certifications differentiate job seekers in a range of subjects, from computer basics to high level programming and information and communications technology management. “By offering Microsoft IT Academy to adults, we are helping bridge the skills gap in today’s competitive job market,” says Artee Williams, ADWS director.
The ADWS also offers the occupational skills assessment system, used to help clients assess their skills and identify jobs for which they may be qualified. The system then compiles a list of skills the client has based on previous work and volunteer experience, identifies other occupations for which the job seeker may be qualified and matches prospective employees with real-time job openings throughout the state. Since its inception in 2012, the occupational skills assessment system has assisted over 56,000 individuals with skills assessments and job searches.
Kim Davis is director of Education and Workforce Development for the Northwest Arkansas Council, a regional economic development organization. He says the organization is focusing its workforce energy on the secondary educational level. Partnering with the local regional technical institute and community college, Northwest Arkansas Council created an honors program for career and technical education. “This honors program awards scholarships in the amount of $1,000 to students throughout the region who have shown outstanding work in our career and technical education fields,” he says. “Our goal is to elevate the importance of career/tech education and those middle skills jobs to our region and across the state.”
Thanks to legislation passed in 2013, Arkansas schools can now create charter conversion schools within a school district. The Northwest Arkansas Council is partnering with the business community and Pea Ridge School District in Benton County to create a manufacturing academy. “The academy will allow students during their junior and senior year to go to a location and work in middle skills jobs around manufacturing,” says Davis. It’s also the perfect opportunity for students to gain some of the soft skills — punctuality, professionalism, work ethic — that employers want. “We’re trying to create a seamless pipeline from secondary education into the workforce,” Davis says.
Collaboration and Results
Terry Watson, director of Workforce Strategic Initiatives, Policy and Program Services for Oklahoma’s Department of Commerce, considers Certified Work Ready Communities a tool to rally partners toward increased collaboration. The state is building a new framework for regional workforce partnerships by developing a regional system certification, which will create, build, evaluate and certify a comprehensive workforce development system in each region of the state.
The system includes incentives for regional education and workforce partners to plan and execute strategies for talent development. Ultimately, a “certified system” will demonstrate that the region can support business expansion, business retention and business attraction by providing integrated services, focusing on the customer, supporting economic development, and ultimately creating wealth for Oklahoma.
Local economic developers have had success using WRC as a marketing tool. “Recently, we have had two major announcements of companies locating to Oklahoma due to workforce-related issues,” Watson says. “GE, because of demonstrated expertise in the energy ecosystem, and Macy’s because of proven training programs available as well as the use of the Governor’s Quick Action Closing fund.”
Strengthening the workforce helps not just Oklahoma, but its neighbors as well. “While we often compete with other states, we realize that cooperation, particularly along the border areas, is a sound strategic decision,” says Watson. “We have good partnerships with northern Texas counties as well as western Arkansas counties. We realize that Oklahomans who may work in a border state will bring their paychecks back to Oklahoma to spend them. Also, the ability to draw talent from those border states enhances our economic development efforts in those regions.”
Industry Driven Workforce Development
Undergirding many individual workforce development initiatives in Texas is the state’s Skills Development Fund, a successful job-training program administered by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) and designed to fit the needs of an individual industry. The oil and gas industry is a perfect example.
As the demand grew for skilled workers in the Eagle Ford, Permian Basin and Cline Shale play regions, the TWC partnered with local community colleges to develop education and training programs specific to the needs of the regions. A total of 13 colleges — eight in the Cline and Permian Shale play and six in the Eagle Ford Shale play — received $3 million in grants to develop customized curriculum and purchase software and training equipment.
“In Texas, we pride ourselves on being the nation’s leader in job creation, with every major industry in Texas showing growth in the past year,” says TWC Chairman Andres Alcantar. “As technology and other factors transform the way our diverse industries operate, TWC will continue to deploy market-driven solutions that equip the highly competitive Texas workforce with the skills needed to succeed in the global marketplace.”
Zach Gilbert is an economic development specialist with the Midland Development Corp. (MDC), located in the heart of oil and gas country. With so many jobs available in the region, fewer students were going to four-year colleges, opting instead to attend community college or enter the workforce. Last year, the MDC decided to apply to become an ACT Work Ready Community under the ACT county pilot program. They figured WorkKeys and NCRCs would be the most efficient and most credible workforce development resource. The program is in its infancy in Midland, but Gilbert is hopeful they’ve found the right tool.
“If we can help these students gain the skills they need and be better equipped for when they graduate from high school to maybe spend a year or two at a trade school, it would help the amount of time and money these oil and gas companies spend going through interviews,” says Gilbert. “That NCRC can move a candidate straight to the top of the pile. They know this job seeker is qualified and can perform the tasks needed.”