Economic development: Why the ‘Work Ready’ tag matters

By Robin Roenker

When business and industry site selection consultants come to Kentucky seeking potential locations to launch or expand operations, invariably they ask one question first: Is a skilled workforce available?

But the answer previously would be subjective at best – precisely quantifying a labor force’s skill level was difficult, if not impossible, for Kentucky’s economic development agencies, chambers of commerce and industrial foundations.

Local officials open the Joseph U. Meyer Center for Workforce Development on Madison Avenue in Covington on Nov. 7, 2014, one week before Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties were jointly certified as a Kentucky Work Ready Community. Operating previously at a different location as the Kentucky Career Center, in 2013-14 it made 5,300 outreach contacts to businesses, posted 5,766 jobs for employers, provided career training to more than 500 people, and helped 21,133 job-seekers obtain 12,452 jobs with an average wage increase of $16,929.
Local officials open the Joseph U. Meyer Center for Workforce Development on Madison Avenue in Covington on Nov. 7, 2014, one week before Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties were jointly certified as a Kentucky Work Ready Community. Operating previously at a different location as the Kentucky Career Center, in 2013-14 it made 5,300 outreach contacts to businesses, posted 5,766 jobs for employers, provided career training to more than 500 people, and helped 21,133 job-seekers obtain 12,452 jobs with an average wage increase of $16,929.

Not anymore, though.

A program first developed nearly a decade ago by a college entrance exam company to assess fundamental work skills has gained acceptance among site selectors, and the commonwealth was one of the first to incorporate it into its economic development communications strategy.

Kentucky’s Work Ready Communities initiative, launched in 2012, gives city and county officials a tool to inform potential employers about talent levels and preparedness of local workforces in a nationally recognized and quantifiable way.

Work Ready certification “gives us a lot more validity when we’re talking to site selectors and potential employers,” said Roxann Fry, an economic development consultant with the Tennessee Valley Authority and chair of the state Work Ready Communities panel charged with reviewing community proposals for certification.

“It enables us to say, ‘Yes, we do have a highly skilled workforce with a great work ethic,’” Fry said. “Before, it had been hard to put a number on that; it was more a ‘take my word for it’ kind of thing. But with Work Ready Certification, once we explain what that is and what it measures, it allows us to verify the quality of our workforce, and point to the numbers to prove it.”

A February article at the National Association of Counties’ naco.org news site explained the power the Work Ready brand has achieved.

“It’s a credential that companies consider in their location and expansion decisions,” said Mark Arend, editor of Site Selection magazine. “It’s a quantifiable measure of how many workers there are with skills they may be looking for. States and counties really should be doing this because it separates communities that talk about their skill availability and communities that can actually demonstrate their available skill sets.”

Proving workforce preparedness

Kentucky was the third state nationally to adopt a Work Ready Communities initiative, after Georgia and Oklahoma, said Robert Curry, the program’s executive director. It operates under the umbrella of the Kentucky Workforce Investment Board and the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, and has been avidly supported by Gov. Steve Beshear.

Daviess, Warren and Woodford counties became the first in the state certified as Work Ready Communities in 2012, and the program has spread quickly since its launch. To date, 17 Kentucky counties have earned Work Ready certification, and 34 more have achieved a Work Ready “Community in Progress” designation – meaning they’ve met much of the certification criteria and have a plan in place to reach all the required benchmarks within three years.

Another 29 counties have filed letters of intent indicating their plans to pursue the process for certification, Curry said.

Taken together, 80 of Kentucky’s 120 counties have committed to participating in the program just three years after its launch.

“Our long-term goal would be to bring this program to as many of the 120 Kentucky counties as possible,” Curry said.

map Work Ready Certified Counties, Mar30 2015
The criteria to achieve Work Ready certification (see list at bottom of the story) are specific and demanding: Six parameters measure area workers’ educational achievement, work preparedness and digital literacy with another gauging overall local commitment to the Work Ready initiative itself.

Kentucky’s parameters are far more stringent than other states’ Work Ready initiatives – an intentional choice on the part of the steering committee that created them, Curry said.

“When the steering committee put this together, we looked at this as an economic development tool. When that site selection consultant says, ‘Tell me about the workforce in this community,’ and we tell him or her that it is a ‘Work Ready Community,’ we wanted that designation to have real meaning,” Curry said. “We can point to specific numbers on educational attainment. We can point to soft skills training and explain NCRC certification and what that entails. And all that has meaning.”

Achieving Work Ready Community certification, or even a Work Ready Community In Progress designation, Curry said, “demonstrates to that county’s current employers that the county is committed to providing a pipeline of qualified workers for the existing business and that they are also committed to providing a qualified workforce for a potential new employer or an expansion at a plant already in their community,” Curry said. “It’s all about the workforce.”

What is the NCRC?

The National Career Readiness Certificate is a test product of ACT Inc. – the same ACT well known for its nationwide college entrance exam. But while the ACT tests for college preparedness, the NCRC tests for job preparedness through what it calls three “WorkKeys assessments.” Questions center on:

  • Applied mathematics
  • Locating information presented graphically
  • Reading for information.

The test’s goal is to offer a measure of a potential employee’s problem solving and critical thinking skills.

Launched in 2006, to date, more than 2.8 million U.S. workers have received National Career Readiness Certificates, according to the NCRC website.

Workers at Ford’s Louisville Assembly Plant assemble the Escape. With more than 1.2 million vehicles produced in 2013, Kentucky ranks third overall in light vehicle production and first per capita.
Workers at Ford’s Louisville Assembly Plant assemble the Escape. With more than 1.2 million vehicles produced in 2013, Kentucky ranks third overall in light vehicle production and first per capita.

While many Kentucky communities have begun embracing the Work Ready Communities momentum, for some, achieving the required worker testing participation benchmark for NCRC certification has been the most difficult of the six parameters to meet. That was the case in Elizabethtown/Hardin County, which achieved Work Ready Community certification last November.

That NCRC component is “probably going to be the major stumbling block for most communities, especially the larger ones, because you have to have a fairly decent percentage of your workforce that has the NCRC certificate,” said Rick Games, president of the Elizabethtown-Hardin County Industrial Foundation.

Many counties have looked for ways to incorporate the testing within their adult education centers so attendees can achieve GED and NCRC testing simultaneously. Others have begun initiatives to introduce testing at county vocational-technical schools. Superintendents in some communities, such as in Bardstown/Nelson County, are investigating ways to incorporate the NCRC as a mandatory test for all seniors.

Money can also be an issue in putting enough workers through testing.

In some cases, employers are paying for the exams. In other cases, civic groups are sponsoring funds to cover the cost. The state currently covers the cost to test all students enrolled in area technology centers, Curry said.

Because the NCRC remains a relatively new product outside the specialized site-selection sector, there is still some local and individual uncertainty about what it measures and how it helps to quantify the skill level of an area’s workforce, Fry said.

“The NCRC portion is a little bit hit and miss, since a lot of people don’t know a lot about it yet,” she said. “So there’s a lot of education that has to go on about that piece.”

“The key to the NCRC is that you have to get employers to buy into the program as well, or there’s no real incentive to take the test,” Games said. “In other words, if we can convince one of our area manufacturers to say, ‘If you have an NCRC certificate we will guarantee you an interview,’ then that’s a carrot that will entice a student maybe even to pay for the test themselves.”

Paradigm shift for career paths

Part of the message of the Work Ready Communities initiative is helping students understand that not everyone must earn a four-year college degree to get a job that pays enough to make a good living – a bit of a paradigm shift from the educational message of the past generation or so.

The program focuses a great deal on encouraging counties to find ways to help students emerge from high school ready and prepared to pursue a promising career – even if a four-year college is not in their plans.

“I know that was the message I gave my children, who are grown adults now: ‘You have to get a four-year degree,” said Vicki Steigleder, executive director of the Maysville-Mason County Chamber of Commerce, where the county is a Work Ready In Progress Community. “I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of good jobs out there where that is not the case. Perhaps these are positions that require at least a two-year degree and some type of certification. But we need people in those areas. We need mechanics and plumbers and electricians, and those jobs make excellent salaries,” she said.

“Basically, in the economic development world,” Fry said, “we have a big gap in the workforce right now in these kinds of high-industrial applications.

“We have kids going to college to be teachers and nurses and other professional careers. And we have kids going to technology schools to get that sort of basic, introductory-level knowledge. But what we are lacking is a workforce at that middle-skill level, with higher-level industrial or technical certifications.”

One goal of the Work Ready Communities initiative is to encourage schools to work with students early to introduce them to the types of high-paying career tracks that may not require a bachelor’s degree.

“We have these students who have the intelligence and skill set and technical acumen to go into these positions, but in some cases, they don’t even know these jobs exist,” Fry said.

Workforce development officials know they need to spread knowledge about the options.

“We’ve got to make both parents and students understand that with a two-year advanced manufacturing degree from a community and technical college, you can get a job making $50,000 a year with very good benefits,” Games said. “It’s a bit of a shift from before, when the message was that everyone has to go to a four-year college.”

Pushing awareness into early grades

Steigleder stresses the need to impart this to community members sooner.

“I think one of the things we’ve learned in going through the Work Ready certification process was that (job exposure and career education) needs to start even before high school, even as early as elementary school,” she said. “Even if it’s just in a simplified way – perhaps through a middle-school field trip to a nearby plant – students need to be exposed to these jobs early on. Because if you wait until high school to introduce these career paths, it may be too late. By junior or senior year, students may be on a course track that prevents them from getting the classes they need to prepare for a specific job.”

As a result of their Work Ready certification process, many counties have begun career training initiatives in collaboration with their area school systems, including programs to help introduce resume-building and “soft skills” training to high school students.

Mason County high school students with at least a 98 percent attendance rate and a strong GPA and work ethic can receive letters of recommendation signed by both the superintendent and Chamber of Commerce upon graduation that they can show to potential employers for a leg-up during the interview process, Steigleder said.

“One of the things we realized was that our juniors were applying for jobs, but they weren’t learning resume writing as part of their curriculum until late in the senior year. So our schools are shifting that resume-writing earlier (into high school course work) to help our students be better prepared,” Steigleder said.

Nelson County and Bardstown Independent schools plan to implement a “We Are Ready” certification program beginning in the fall.

“Participating students will earn a seal on their diploma signifying participation in workforce education programming and a strong attendance and GPA record,” said Kim Huston, president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency. “We feel the seal will help set these graduates apart as an elite candidate to potential employers. It will show that they are ready to work. They’ve been taught, and they know what’s required to be a good employee.”

Building community-wide buy-in

Over and over, Curry hears one unifying message from counties that have participated in the Work Ready program: The process of working toward certification is as valuable as the certification itself.

That’s because the program encourages networking across sectors within the community that don’t otherwise have an occasion to cross paths – like education and industry.

The Work Ready project “allowed me to bring groups and individuals together that otherwise would not have been together in a single room brainstorming ways to be better,” said Huston, who noted that her committee included human resources managers from area industries, representatives from the Lincoln Trail Area Development District, and the county’s two school superintendents.

“For the first time, our educators and business and industry leaders were engaged in a dialogue. The superintendents were hearing firsthand from our industries what the workforce is lacking and what they need for a better-equipped workforce,” Huston said. “You can’t get any more credible proof of a community buy-in than to have that kind of a dialogue beginning.”

Now a Work Ready Community review panel member herself, Steigleder said she finds herself giving the most credence to the Community Commitment benchmark when reviewing applications.

“I go so far as to look at how many major manufacturers there are in a county and then look for what percentage of those have submitted letters of support for the program,” she said. “I look to see who’s at the table, what groups are represented on the minutes for the county’s Work Ready planning meetings. This program is all about team building, bringing everyone together.”

And counties should know that achieving certification is not the end of the process, Curry said.

“Certification is only good for two years. Then you have to come back and reapply, and the committee looks for evidence of continued growth and constant improvement on those benchmark numbers,” he said.

“Work Ready is another important tool in our toolbox when we work to promote our community to potential employers,” said Games.

“I’ve never been so proud as the day I hung our ‘Work Ready’ signs on all the entrances into town,” said Huston. “Work Ready is right at the top of all the accolades we promote here.

In addition to letting people know Bardstown was designated one of the Most Beautiful Small Towns in America, we also tell them we have a strong, qualified workforce. It is critically important.”

Work Ready Community certification criteria

  • High School Graduation Rate: Counties must have a minimum 88 percent high school graduation rate for the 2013-2014 academic year and a plan in place to achieve 98 percent by 2022.
  • National Career Readiness Certification: A plan must be in place to have at least 9 percent of the working-age population take and pass the NCRC test within three years, and 15 percent within five years.
  • Community Commitment: A wide variety of community stakeholders should have committed, central roles in the application process. Local economic development entities are a given. Work Ready efforts also should include elected officials, superintendents, workforce investment boards and area development districts, plus business and industry leaders.
  • Educational Attainment: 25 percent of the local working-age population must have attained at least a least a two-year college degree. A county must have a plan in place to raise that percentage to 32 percent in three years and 39 percent – the U.S. national average – in five years.
  • Soft Skills: The county must have a program or plan in place to help educate its workforce about “soft skills” expertise, including attendance, being on time, developing a strong work ethic, dressing appropriately and communicating well.
  • High-Speed Internet Access: At least 90 percent of housing units in a community must have access to high-speed Internet. With most jobs today requiring some computer skill, it is a measure of digital literacy.

Robin Roenker is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]

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