Partners join to bridge NWLA skills gap

Northwest Louisiana businesses and related organizations are pledging to help bridge the skills gap for its workforce.

To date, more than 40 regional employers recognize the ACT WorkKeys National Career Readiness Certificate. WorkKeys is an assessment developed by ACT to measure work readiness, similar to how the ACT assessment measures college readiness. It measures the suitability of a job seeker or existing employee to be trained on the technical aspects of a targeted occupation.

Individuals who successfully complete the three WorkKeys assessments – Applied Math, Graphic Literacy, and Workplace Documents – earn the WorkKeys National Career Readiness Certificate, a valuable credential for students and job seekers seeking to verify foundational workplace skills.

Not only are the ACT WorkKeys assessments beneficial to those individuals taking the assessments, but also the employers who recognize the program and give preference to candidates who have a certificate when deciding who to hire or promote.

In October 2017, the North Louisiana Economic Partnership (NLEP) gathered regional partners like the Bossier Chamber of Commerce to initiate the ACT Work Ready Community program in Bossier, Caddo, DeSoto and Webster parishes.

Over 24 organizations representing K-12 education, community and technical colleges, economic development, workforce development, chambers of commerce, local government and non-profit organizations, have launched a new partnership called “North Louisiana Ready2Work” and together are being trained on how to use and talk to the community about WorkKeys. The North Louisiana Ready2Work team is also committed to making sure Bossier, Caddo, DeSoto and Webster parishes become certified Work Ready Communities.

BIZ. sat down with Angie White, senior vice president of workforce strategy and administration for NLEP, to find out how and why the business community should get involved.

Angie White

BIZ.: If I’m a business owner, why should I support the WorkKeys initiative?

Angie White: We all have a stake in making our country more competitive and closing the skills gap that threatens to paralyze our economy. Change starts at the grassroots level, and ACT is leading this change by training local organizations within a state or parish to use a community-based framework that links workforce development to education; aligns with the economic development needs of communities, regions, and states; and matches individuals to jobs based on skill levels.

If you are a business owner in Bossier, Caddo, DeSoto or Webster parishes, there are two compelling reasons why you should support this ACT Work Ready Communities (WRC) initiative.  First, many employers today struggle to find qualified candidates for job openings and to hire candidates that are a good fit for the job. WorkKeys can help companies improve their hiring results and increase retention of those hired. Second, the larger the percentage of our regional workforce that possesses a WorkKeys certificate as a demonstration of their work readiness, the greater the likelihood that they will be successful at qualifying for a job with a family-supporting wage, which will lower the number of residents requiring support services and improve our employment and labor force participation rates. This initiative is a win-win for our regional employers and the community as a whole.

BIZ: What does that support look like in terms of money, effort, etc.?

AW: The costs associated with this initiative are the cost of the WorkKeys test, and the cost of the training curriculum, which will help a job seeker prepare to take WorkKeys or help them improve their score if they did not score high enough to earn a certificate, or want to earn a higher score on their WorkKeys test to qualify for a specific job. There are already funding sources in place to cover the testing of some high school students and community and technical college students. The WRC team is also working with local workforce development agencies to pay for testing and training for individuals qualified to receive federal workforce training dollars. Employers that choose to test their existing workforce on WorkKeys can use their in-house training dollars or if the have been paying into the state unemployment fund for three or more years they may apply for an Incumbent Worker Training Program grant that could be used to pay for WorkKeys testing.The WRC team is also applying for grant funds to offer scholarships for testing and training for individuals that are not affiliated with any of the above funding sources and need a portable, nationally recognized credential like the WorkKeys certificate to qualify for a job.

BIZ: How can supporting this initiative help a business?

AW: Using WorkKeys in their hiring and promotion practices can help employers find applicants with a stronger likelihood of job readiness, lower employee turnover, increase hiring effectiveness, lower hiring and training costs. There are numerous examples of improved metrics beyond those listed here, such as construction companies lowering their safety incidents, healthcare companies improving their team effectiveness, and organizations that rely on employees with strong customer service skills shortening their training time with improved training outcomes and lowering turnover. To see examples from different industries, visit www.workreadycommunities.org/employers.

BIZ: What does having a WorkKeys certificate mean when employers are looking to hire?

AW: If an employer has used the WorkKeys system to determine the required WorkKeys score to perform well in a specific occupation, then the next step would be to post the recommended WorkKeys score on their job notices and stress that applicants who possess a certificate at that level will be preferred candidates. The benefit of doing this means you can lower the number of applications that must be processed and the likelihood of those hires being retained is greater, saving your human resources staff significant time and saving the company money. If a local company is interested in learning more about how this process works, a North Louisiana Ready2Work team member can meet with his or her HR team and walk them through the process. Visit www.NorthLouisianaReady2Work.org/contact and complete the short form to schedule an appointment.

BIZ: How does facilitating WorkKeys in our region mean for the business community at large?

AW: Over time, as our region grows the number of WorkKeys certificates possessed by our workforce, we will be able to analyze the results of their scores to talk to employers about the skill sets possessed by our workforce. For industries that are strong in our region, or occupations that have a heavy concentration here, or that we would like to see more of available here, we will be able to demonstrate our workforce’s suitability for them. If our WorkKeys certificate holders are not scoring adequately for critical occupations we want to see grow here, we can develop action plans with education and training providers to boost the skills of our workforce in the areas where they need improvement. At that point, WorkKeys becomes a strong tool for developing the economy of our region in a way that we can control and be purposeful about.

BIZ: If I want to get involved in supporting WorkKeys, what do I need to do?

AW: The most important thing a regional employer can do to support the success of the WRC initiative is to educate their recruiting and human resources staff to recognize WorkKeys and understand how to use the tool to improve hiring efficiency. Employers can demonstrate their support of the initiative by completing an online pledge of support on the ACT Work Ready Communities website (www.WorkReadyCommunities.org/employers). Doing so will draw more attention to their company by local job seekers, educators and workforce development professionals helping local job seekers find a good fit.