ACT Looks Beyond College to Career Readiness
The battle rages in K-12 and higher education circles over seemingly countless issues: when to start reading, what material to read, the value of assessments, and who should be in control of curricula, to name a few. Yet few would disagree that at least one of the goals of a high school and college education is to provide necessary skills for the 21st century workplace. If a student is graduating from high school and college and does not have the adequate reading, mathematical, and data analysis skills for a meaningful career, then something is amiss with that student’s education. Regardless of how we feel about the Common Core standards, relevance of summative assessments, and admission policies of various institutions, hopefully we can agree that skilled employment is one of the goals of education.
Yet knowing when an individual has the necessary skills for a job has been elusive. Previous studies have relied upon employer surveys or on the assumption that a high level of education carries with it necessary job skills, yet the strength of those correlations has been challenged in recent studies. A report by the ACT found that less than half of graduates with a high level of education (bachelor’s degree or higher) could meet the skill requirements for 4 of the 5 occupations with a large number of openings and for 3 of the 5 highest-paying occupations requiring a high level of education. What does that mean? Graduates with a high level of education are missing the skill requirements for either the highest paying positions or the positions are currently open. Either way, there are some serious opportunities to be had for available and high-paying jobs, and more than half of college graduates could miss them.
The ACT is attempting to respond to this dilemma by helping workers overcome the skills gap necessary to obtaining skilled employment. The company that receives the most attention for the ACT college admissions test – administered to 2.1 million students in 2015– is also offering products that move beyond senior year of high school. The Workforce Solutions program strives to develop assessments and training to help individuals find employment and businesses find skilled applicants. The WorkKeys assessments evaluate three criteria: Reading for Information, Applied Mathematics, and Locating Information, identified by the ACT as foundational skills crucial for a broad range of jobs. Examinees’ performances are rated at various levels, and bronze, silver, gold, and platinum National Career Readiness Certificates (NCRC) are awarded based on the level achieved. You may have noticed a “progress toward career readiness” on your recent ACT report; that refers to this process of obtaining the career readiness certificate. A high performance on the ACT suggests that an NCRC is within reach. Students who do not obtain the certificate can participate in the Career Curriculum, which provides training for the hard- and soft-skills necessary to obtain the NCRC.
In addition to providing the WorkKeys assessment and NCRC, the ACT also profiles jobs and determines the skill level required for those occupations. To date, the ACT has profiled more than 20,000 positions, or 87% of all US job titles. Using these profiles and the WorkKeys assessment, the ACT provides information to aspiring employees about how they match up to the level of job skills for various professions and to employers looking to hire the best workers for their positions. The WorkKeys assessment provides employers with a certification program that is backed by decades’ worth of data. The ACT also offers JobPro, a service to employers who want to assess the skills necessary for their specific hiring positions as well as evaluate applicants based on their NCRC levels. The Workforce Solutions program seeks to position to employees, businesses, and states as the legitimate answer to the question about determining career readiness.
The WorkKeys assessment (and the accompanying training program) could potentially provide high school and college graduates with a more tangible evaluation of their level of ability with foundational skills. The ACT also provides on its website the list of employers who either recognize or recommend the NCRC, a resource for individuals seeking employment in their area of expertise. Rather than send out a hundred resumes to a hundred companies hoping for one to bite, applicants could apply to companies knowing that they have the skills necessary for the job and that the company values the NCRC certification program.
Additionally, the ACT career readiness system offers state and county governments the opportunity to make their communities “work ready.” The ACT defines a “work ready community” as one that has the supply of certificates earned by individuals matched by the employers who recognize or recommend the NCRC. A “work ready community” has the potential to assist its constituents more effectively in finding employment within that county or state as well as draw in potential businesses that see a well-trained pool of potential applicants.
Nationwide, the ACT has administered over 3.5 million NCRC certificates in 140 counties, with over 14,000 employers supporting the certification process including AT&T, Kellogg’s, UPS, Perdue Foods, Coca-Cola, Duke Energy, and Amazon, just to name a few. Employer support is state- and county-based, so not every company’s branch nationwide has given its support to the NCRC yet.
The ACT’s Workforce Solutions could offer a much-needed bridge between the skills learned in a high school or college education and a meaningful career that puts those skills to use. Of course, there is the danger that this certification program will result in a perpetuation of the assessment arms race, making the job search a continuation of the frenzied admissions cycle. Will such an assessment program effectively equip individuals for their dream careers, or will it require one more set of assessments keeping those careers at arms’ length? We can certainly appreciate the assessment exhaustion of today’s educational climate and the wariness of the promises of one more assessment.
Still, as much as we dislike assessments, this seems to be the world in which we live. As a negative example, plenty of employers require applicants to submit high school SAT scores in order to be considered. Certainly a lot can change between junior year of high school and post college graduation! On a more positive note, various professions – firemen, beauticians, CPAs, lawyers, counselors, you name it – require that employees pass licensure exams, and we should be very thankful for them! I sleep well at night knowing that my fireman is up-to-date with the latest rescue techniques! If the ACT can prove to the public and to states that its WorkKeys assessment is more of a licensure exam, demonstrating to employers that an applicant has the necessary skills for the job, and less of an attempt to capture a new market with “just another assessment,” it might be a move in the right direction toward closing the “skills gap” and strengthening the connection between education and employment.
The ACT Workforce Solutions model raises some much-needed questions about the relationship between education and employment. To what extent should an education degree equip graduates for a skilled career? And what is the role of college entrance exams like the ACT and the SAT in this conversation? Is the ACT’s move into the employment realm an inappropriate one, or is the company right to see that students of all types – in high school, community colleges, vocational schools, and 4-year institutions – would benefit from job skills assessments as they make their way into the post-education world? With education, employment, and economy at the forefront of everyone’s minds, these are definitely questions worth pursuing.