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Put to the test, Eau Claire County Work Ready

Date: 4.24.2018

By Andrew Dowd, Leader-Telegram Staff

A CVTC-led coalition wants Eau Claire County to become an ACT Work Ready Community

Candidates can get a job with an impeccable resume, suave interview, and stellar references.  They passed the hiring process, but that isn’t necessarily the best way to tell if someone will thrive in a workplace.  Sometimes an ace candidate can surprisingly become a drag on your businesses’ team for the lack of “soft skills” – those intangible traits that get the job done well.

Wouldn’t it be great to know how well an employee can apply academics to real-world work situations, read graphs and charts, and pick out crucial information from lengthy company documents before hiring that person?  As it turns out, Wisconsin has been using a nationally recognized test to gauge those skills in high schoolers for a few years now, but many employers didn’t know about it.

Lynette Livingston learned about the test from her children and several teachers she knows, but when she asked how scores from the state-mandated test will help after high school, the reply was, “I don’t know, nobody’s asking for it.”  “It seemed like a significant investment of state resources, but it’s falling short of the benefits because employers weren’t aware of it,” she said.

Livingston decided to make the test and awareness of it the subject of her dissertation for her doctoral degree in career and technical education at UW-Stout.  “What I found was we certainly had very limited employer awareness of the WorkKeys assessment and National Career Readiness Certification in our region,” she said.

She surveyed 95 employers in the region about their familiarity with the soft skills test and certification.  Of those, 88 percenter responded that they saw the value of such measures of an employee’s soft skills.  In her position as dean of business, arts, sciences and academic initiatives at Chippewa Valley Technical College, Livingston is working with colleagues in education, business groups, and companies to spread the word about the test that gauges soft skills.

Their intent is to get Eau Claire County named the first Work Ready Community in Wisconsin – an honor that testing company ACT bestows on areas that meet certain goals.

Getting there

The designation shows that a community has achieved benchmarks in testing students and workers, along with a level of awareness in the area’s business community.  Eau Claire County automatically achieved one of those goals – getting enough high school students to take WorkKeys – because the test has been mandated throughout the state since spring 2015.

During the spring semester, juniors take the well-known ACT test for college admission and then have the WorkKeys test the following day.  The workplace readiness test takes about three hours and is split up into three units – applied math, graphic literacy, and workplace documents.

Passing the test gives students an ACT WorkKeys National Career Readiness Certificate to show their level of work readiness.  Certificates range from bronze to platinum level to indicate the score that individual students earned.  In the Eau Claire school district, about 90 percent of students earn platinum, gold or silver certificates from their WorkKeys scores, said Michelle Radtke, the district’s director of assessments. 

Eau Claire students took the test before spring break and will get their paper certificates mailed to them near the end of the school year.

The tougher goal that ACT set for Eau Claire County is to get a certain amount of the business community to learn about the certificates students have and recognize how they could be useful in the hiring process.  “We need to have 66 employers that identify as supporting the NCRC,” Livingston said.  Those can come from within the county and a 25-mile radius of it.

So far more than 15 companies have agreed, said Jeff Sullivan, CVTC’s, dean of skilled trades and engineering, and he’s gotten information to many more who are considering it.  For employers he’s talked to, Sullivan said the response has been positive.  “They were encouraged that the scores existed,” he said.

The college and its partners unveiled the Work Ready Community effort on March 1 at CVTC’s annual Manufacturing Show and began seeking employers to join in.  Matt Guse, owner and president of his family’s machine shop in Augusta, MRS Machining, is one of the first local firms to sign on as an advocate for the program.  “It will be a tool for me to use right away to tell if the person is qualified for the position we’re looking to fill or not,” he said of the certifications gained from the WorkKeys test.

While CVTC is looking for companies to agree that they’re simply aware of the WorkKeys and certifications and what they mean, Guse is going a step further and said it will be something he consiers when he’s hiring.  “They’ll be the first in line for me because I’m a big fan of this program,” he said of candidates with a certificate.

And the varying levels—bronze through platinum—will aid him in deciding which candidates would be better for general labor versus those who already have the skills for a higher level job.  The benefit to his 50-person machine shop would be to avoid making a bad hiring decision, which costs time and money.  Getting a new hire trained in how the shop works, observing experienced workers and all up to speed costs MRS Machining about $15,000, Guse said, before that person is producing revenue for the business.

Two additional criteria for getting the WorkReady Community designation are administering the test to a few current workers and some in between jobs.  The 12 people already in the workforce who have an NCRC count toward the goal of 37.  There are ten people considered “transitional” in their employment with an NCRS, but that will need to grow to 220 within three years for the county to become a Work Ready Community.

 Every three years, the county will have to go through its goals again to recertify, if it wants to keep that status.

How to test?

While she hasn’t taken the whole WorkKeys test, Livingston said she has tried sample questions and found they were different than the ordinary standardized test.  “They’re more multifaceted,” she said.  “It’s not your typical story problem.”

ACT has several sample questions posted on its website to give an idea of how the test works.  One question starts by explaining the process for requesting a replacement for a defective part from a manufacturer.  But it then asks what to do if you followed procedure but then lost the document the manufacturer sent back.  There are five carefully worded answers to choose from and each hints at how an employee would function in the workplace.  Two of them involve sending the part back along with a request for the paperwork you lost.  Another answer suggests using documentation from another return transaction.  And another wrong way to deal with the problem would be to send the bad part along to a coworker or underling.

Ultimately the correct answer is to repeat the standard procedure all over again to get all the necessary paperwork before returning the bad part.  And, no, checking with your supervisory wasn’t even an option—the test wants you to make the decision.  “It is that measurement of pulling information together and identifying what you do with that, rather than have to locate the answer within text,” Livingston said.

Applied math questions include story problems like making change at a cash register, calculating fuel left in a cylindrical tank and finding the average of sales calls made over a week.  Graphic literacy sample questions have students gauge the highest blood glucose level of a hypoglycemic patient using a chart, tracking inventory levels and deciding which plant out of four is most in need of improvement funds based on financial performance.  The workplace documents portion of the test has questions on recording an employee discount, understanding a corporate email policy and reading instructions for filling an order.

In his position at CVTC, Sullivan oversees several programs where these soft skills come in handy.  For example, the ability to read and interpret graphs and diagrams is crucial for students in the college’s manufacturing program.  “We look at blueprints, we read technical documents,” Sullivan said.

In her research of career readiness assessments, Livingston found other tests and frameworks, but WorkKeys has the name recognition of ACT, which already is respected for college readiness exams.

While Eau Claire County is the lone one in Wisconsin shown to be working toward certification, there are 200 counties elsewhere in the U.S. that already have the designation, and 181 working toward it.

Nearly all of South Carolina, many in North Carolina, Missouri, and Oregon, based on a map on ACT’s website.  As of mid-March, nearly 20,000 employers in the U.S. recognized the WorkKeys as a credential.

Test yourself

To learn more about the ACT WorkKeys assessment and try sample questions go to

Taken from Business Leader.  To read more go to:

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