WieldingWhat if high school students and recent graduates could earn a nationally recognized credential demonstrating that they have the literacy and numeracy skills necessary for success in the workplace? What if employers had a way to precisely measure the skills needed for particular jobs and then hire people who possess those skills? What if communities had the workforce data they need to close skills gaps and attract business and industry? In a growing number of communities across the country, the ACT Work Ready Communities initiative, from the makers of the ACT college admissions test, is helping to make this a reality.

Currently 12 Tennessee counties are participating in this initiative. All are located in the Northwest region of the state. Benton, Dyer, Lake, Lauderdale, and Obion Counties are certified ACT Work Ready Communities, and seven other counties in the region are working toward certification.

The cornerstone of ACT Work Ready Communities is the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC). The NCRC is based on ACT WorkKeys assessments of three key work skills: applied mathematics, locating information, and reading for information. There are four different levels of NCRC based on a student’s performance on these assessments:

• Bronze: student scores at Level 3 (out of 7) or higher on all three assessments
• Silver: student scores at Level 4 or higher on all three assessments
• Gold: student scores at Level 5 or higher on all three assessments
• Platinum: student scores at Level 6 or higher on all three assessments

DyerComputersTo prepare for the assessments, students can use an online tool from ACT called Career Ready 101. With this tool, students can take pretests in all three skill areas. Based on how a student performs on the pretests, the program automatically assigns lessons to help him or her improve.

Another key feature of ACT Work Ready Communities is job profiling. Trained job profilers work with employers and employees to develop a detailed list of the tasks involved in a particular job and then link those tasks to ACT WorkKeys skill levels. After going through this process, employers can require applicants to have the level of NCRC that corresponds to the skill demands of the job.

To become a certified ACT Work Ready Community, a county must complete the following steps:

• Fill out an application.
• Assemble a leadership team of diverse stakeholders, such as chambers of commerce, educators, elected officials, and employers.
• Attend the ACT Work Ready Communities Academy, a four-part program that guides the leadership team through implementation of the ACT Work Ready Communities framework.
• Meet goals for the percentage of the workforce with an NCRC. This includes separate goals for current workforce, transitioning workforce (currently unemployed, participating in adult education, or current or recent active duty military), emerging workforce (high school juniors and seniors, college students, and recent graduates).
• Meet goals for employer support.

According to Ginger Powell of the Northwest Tennessee Workforce Board, counties in Northwest Tennessee began offering NCRCs in 2008. At the time, only states were eligible to pursue ACT Work Ready certification. When ACT opened certification to individual counties, Powell says, “It was just a natural thing for us to work to get certified.”

Since 2012, more than 8,000 people in the 12 participating counties have received an NCRC, including more than 2,000 people in the “Emerging Workforce” category. The counties have received pledges of support from over 160 employers and 186 job profiles have been completed. About 30 employers in the area require job applicants to have an NCRC, and many more prefer applicants who have one. The Northwest Tennessee Workforce Board offers the ACT WorkKeys assessments at each of its 11 Career Centers.

“One thing we hear from employers a lot is that they appreciate the fact that an individual took the initiative to earn the credential,” says Powell. “We try to talk to every job seeker who comes in to tell them that it’s an excellent résumé builder.”

To learn more about ACT Work Ready Communities, visit www.workreadycommunities.org.

(Thanks to Ginger Powell for her contribution to this blog post.)

This is the fifth in a series of SCORE Sheet blogs about school-business partnerships in Tennessee that focus on helping students develop skills for postsecondary education and the workforce.