Worker Test Certification Encouraged By WIRED

April 28, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Coming soon, to a worker near you — from the folks who brought you the ACT test — the National Career Readiness Certificate test.

The West Michigan Strategic Alliance WIRED project has piloted the NCRC program in West Michigan. Last week, the alliance announced that 11,732 workplace readiness certificates were issued here in 2007 and in the first quarter of 2008, most to high school students who took the test. But hundreds of adults who are already part of the West Michigan work force have also taken the career readiness test. Many take it through MichiganWorks, when they are looking for work.

More than 203 West Michigan employers also have now agreed to make the test part of their screening process for current or future job applicants. Some companies also are testing their employees, and more West Michigan employers are expected to follow suit.

The National Career Readiness Certificate test was developed by ACT Inc., the same not-for-profit organization that created the ACT and still has the test scores for every test taken since it was created in 1959 for U.S. college-bound high school students.

ACT Inc. has developed WorkKeys, skill areas involved in all types of jobs. Three of the basic WorkKeys are used in the NCRC certificate being used here: tests for applied mathematics, reading for information, and "locating information." The last area of testing shows how well the individual can extract specific information from charts, graphs and similar graphic materials. Tests are scored in several numeric levels, and overall test results yield three types of certificates: bronze, silver and gold.

The NCRC is a standardized test for applicants at any type of job, especially entry level work in manufacturing plants in any part of the U.S., just as the ACT is standardized and accepted by most colleges and universities throughout the U.S.

"There are lots of (education) credentials that an employer doesn't always understand or use. In this case, this is a common language that we all understand," said Rachael Jungblot of the Training Solutions department of the GRCC School of Workforce Development, which is involved with WIRED in getting West Michigan employers to use the NCRC.

Greg Northrup, president of West Michigan Strategic Alliance, said the test is also a work-force development tool. Once an individual has taken the test, he or she will "clearly understand what they need to do" to improve, if they have to improve their basic skill levels to find a new or better job.

"I took it, and everybody throughout the organization took it," said Jay Dunwell, who works at Wolverine Coil Spring in Grand Rapids. "I got a Gold," he added — which is a good thing, because he is president of the company.

When all 60 Wolverine Coil Spring employees took the test last year, "test anxiety went through the roof, but we all got through it," joked Dunwell. Each of the three parts took almost an hour to complete. The tests were administered on company time, three days in a row, which did not impact productivity very much.

"I had a few folks who said, 'I haven't taken a test in 20 years,'" he recalled.

"We assured our staff that no one was going to lose their position based on test scores," said Dunwell. The results are confidential, known only to the HR department and the individual.

In addition to the practical value of pinpointing the additional education or training an individual could use, it also is a tool management can use when considering existing employees for advancement and promotion.

Dunwell cited a success story that came out of the NCRC testing at Wolverine Coil Spring.

Diego Arviso had recently been hired and "was in one of our entry level positions — packing springs into boxes," said Dunwell. Arviso scored "wonderfully," earning a Gold NCRC certificate, which "really helped us identify a diamond in the rough."

"He's now in a CNC setup technician role and doing very well," added Dunwell.

Dunwell said Wolverine Coil Spring will "prefer" that its job applicants have an NCRC certificate, although it is not yet a requirement.

ACT Inc. profiled more than 14,000 specific types of jobs, including pay levels generally connected to them — which is very useful for the employee to know. Each job profiled is equated to a specific type of NCRC in terms of score levels in the different categories.

Jungblot said employers are interested in the NCRC once they learn about it.

"I know (the NCRC is) working, when individuals seeking new positions are inquiring 'How do I get the test?'" said Jungblot, "and temp staffing agencies are telling us, ‘I have employers who would like candidates with career readiness certificates. How do we get that done?’"

Richard L. Ferguson, CEO and chairman of ACT Inc., spoke at the West Michigan Strategic Alliance meeting last week attended by employers from throughout West Michigan. He said about 40 states are now using a career readiness certification program to some extent.

Ferguson said many young Americans coming out of high school and even colleges and universities are not at a high level of career preparedness, especially for jobs that today rely more than ever on science and math ability.

Unfortunately, he said, many parts of the developing world are surpassing the U.S. in preparing young people for advanced high-tech jobs, he said.

Although the Reading for Information and Applied Mathematics ACT WorkKeys are now part of the new Michigan Merit Exam taken by high school juniors, it does not include the Locating Information test. The West Michigan Strategic Alliance has advocated the addition of that test, however, and the intermediate school districts in both Kent and Ottawa counties have worked with the alliance to add it to the Michigan Merit Exam there.

Northrup said Michigan now ranks ninth among the top 10 states in the number of National Career Readiness Certificates earned per capita. But if West Michigan were a state itself, its per capita rate of certificate holders would make it No. 1.

The West Michigan Strategic Alliance and its partners are attempting to leverage $60 million in various funding sources for strengthening and certifying the next generation of the West Michigan work force, to make the region more attractive to companies seeking higher qualified workers.

Win Irwin, CEO of Irwin Seating in Walker, also testified at the alliance meeting last week on the desirability of the NCRC.

"I anticipate we will use it more and more (at Irwin Seating), particularly with the people in the factory," Irwin told the Business Journal.

Employees in one particular manufacturing department at Irwin Seating took the NCRC test, he said.

"We used it to profile what was needed" in the way of additional training," he said.

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