The economy might just be on its way up, and subsequently the same holds true for employment. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that total employment will increase by 21.3 million jobs, or 15 percent, between 2002 and 2012. Employers need to fill these jobs, but find that skills are on their way down.
"Years ago you could have 10 qualified applicants for the position, and if you had someone who wasn't strong, you just didn't hire them," explains RickiAnn Saylor, vice president of professional development services for ACT, an Iowa City, Iowa, non-profit organization that provides assessments, research, information and program management services. "But we may not be in a position to do that in the future. If we simply do not have enough bodies, we may find ourselves hiring people who are not as strong as we need them to be. This notion of foundational skills and what we can do to remediate is going to become a huge issue in the national workforce." For many, it already is.
ACT is best known for its college admissions test—the one every high school junior dreads—that focuses on the transition from high school to college. But in the early 1990s, ACT began wondering if perhaps another significant part of the population was not being attended to. What about those who did not go to college? Or those who did not go to college immediately after high school? It was these questions that took ACT through two years of research, says Saylor.
Through a series of national focus groups with employers and businesses, ACT asked if there were difficulties associated with the school-to-work transition. Were entry-level employees adequately prepared to join the workforce? "We got a resounding 'no'," Saylor says. "We heard that they were not prepared, and that employers were hiring them and then having to do inappropriate kinds of remedial training for basic foundational skills."
Reading, applied mathematics, and what ACT now refers to as locating information were the foundational skills employers said were lacking the most. So ACT created a two-part system called Workkeys, a two-part skills assessment for employers who want to find employees with the appropriate skill sets.
MidAmerican Energy was having trouble with its entry-level hiring, specifically in finding skilled, ready-to-hire meter readers. "We had about a 50 percent turnover rate. We did not have a good, diverse recruiting pool, and a lot of the hiring was done just by word of mouth," says Julie Sorci, manager of staffing for the Des Moines energy producer. "We were also having customer service issues because people were not making accurate meter reads."
This was greatly increasing customer complaints, and MidAmerican was determined to find a pre-employment selection tool that would help them hire more skilled people. Through the Iowa workforce development office, the equivalent of an unemployment office, MidAmerican learned of Workkeys.
One part of Workkeys is a profiling system, which Saylor believes is what makes Workkeys unique. A skill profile is created for a particular job by asking what foundational skills are necessary and which ones are most important for a particular position. Saylor takes reading as an example. "I can think of very few jobs that don't require reading," she says. "Look at an elementary school teacher and a paralegal. Both require reading, but the paralegal's level of reading is much more complex and detailed." Skills for particular positions are ranked in order of most importance.
The other part is assessments—10 different tests, each on a foundational skill such as reading, writing, math and even skills not often thought about such as observational and listening skills. These skills are assessed in academic settings, but these tests cannot be used to assess the same skills in a workplace, because the approach is totally different. Saylor explains: "The tests are all contextualized for the workplace. For example, with applied mathematics, in an academic test, the question would ask you to solve for the two variables in a quadratic equation. You're never going to see that in a Workkeys test. You have to calculate something, and it's going to be related to the workplace and a job task. It may have the same underlying mathematical theories, but it'll never just ask you to solve for the quadratic equation."
The tests generally take between 30 and 55 minutes and are created to be administered in a proctored environment, much like the ACT college admissions exam. Most of the tests are paper and pencil or computer-based, although a few are video-based. All follow the same basic test-taking format. "All of the tests involve information handling, application of judgment and complex problem-solving," says Oliver Cummings, director of test development for ACT.
Put these two parts—the job profile and the assessment—on top of one another and you find out if you have a qualified candidate and where the gaps are.
MidAmerican had to profile its meter reader job first, and decided that reading for information, locating information and observation were the crucial skills for a job that places employees in uncontrollable environments, including uneven terrain, dogs and basements. Perhaps these factors seem trivial, but when dealing with individuals' safety, they can be significant and sometimes costly for MidAmerican.
MidAmerican provides the tests on these skills at area workforce development offices and always in paper-and-pencil form so that those who have limited computer experience are not at a disadvantage. Sorci says they encourage all test takers to visit the Web site and go through available tutorials that explain what will be required of them during the test. A pretest is also available online for $4.
Since administering Workkeys assessments, MidAmerican has reduced its overall turnover by 50 percent, and turnover for causes such as absenteeism, insubordination and other improper employee behavior has dropped 73 percent.
Sorci says the number of accidents has decreased, and observational skills have increased, improving customer service as a whole. Even in noticing things like newspapers stacking up on a porch or a dog running loose that's normally in the house, meter readers have become more community-conscious. Those who go through the tests are moving much more quickly through MidAmerican's apprentice programs, and the objective tests have provided a much more diverse employee pool. MidAmerican has profiled additional positions including technicians, plant utility helpers, power plant operators, and assistant unit operators and plans to use Workkeys' assessments for these as well.
Focusing on employees' foundational skills, or lack thereof, might just be one of the necessary keys for employers to successfully hire in the future. "In terms of a pyramid, the bottom layer is personality testing, behavioral characteristics—things that are pretty hard to change," explains Cummings. "The other extreme, the top layer, is the job-specific testing like a fire lieutenant's exam. Then in between these are the foundational skills. You get a lot of interest and activity in the business world on the two ends, but the middle is the forgotten part."
See also: Keys on a Different Chain.
Heather Johnson is the former assistant editor of Training. firstname.lastname@example.org