Word spreads quickly when Solvay Paperboard has job openings for operations and maintenance technicians. Even before the want ad appears in local newspapers, Ann Freeh, the company's human resources manager, receives what she calls a "boatload" of resumˇs from job applicants. Sorting through these applications to find the right people can be a formidable task. But thanks to WorkKeys, a community workforce development partnership among Syracuse University's School of Education, the Metropolitan Development Association (MDA), and regional education and training providers, that task has become a manageable one, ultimately resulting in a more capable workforce.
"We needed a tool that would provide us with objective data to help us know who to invite for an interview," Freeh says. "WorkKeys allows us to spend the 'face time' of an interview most productively on people who have the capability to come on board and make an immediate contribution."
WorkKeys was created by ACT Inc. (a nonprofit organization formerly called American College Testing) in conjunction with business, government agencies, and educators. The state-funded, national program helps companies profile jobs, assess worker skills, and customize workforce training. Typically a company uses WorkKeys in a four-step process, working with experts from higher education institutions and ACT to profile specific jobs; assess skill levels; use the results to identify qualified workers and "skills gaps," and target training dollars; and implement customized training programs.
In Syracuse, the program is directed through the SU School of Education's Office of Professional Development as part of the MDA's Vision 2010. According to director Scott Shablak, the University's role is to provide research, development, and educational services. "Our challenge from the Chancellor," says Shablak, "is to determine the degree to which WorkKeys can help Central New York reach its economic development goals and to ascertain WorkKeys' effectiveness as a model for statewide use."
SU began researching WorkKeys in 1997 and introduced the program to 74 local businesses in 1998, when funding was procured through New York State Assemblyman Michael Bragman '63. Today the School of Education-based WorkKeys Service Center has relationships with numerous area businesses, including Solvay Paperboard, Agway Energy Systems, and Diemolding. Services provided include assessment tools to screen new employees, training resources for laid-off workers, and new job profiles for expanding companies.
"The next, and perhaps most dynamic, aspect of this initiative will be to assess high school students," says Tom Hadlick G'92, operations coordinator for the WorkKeys Service Center. Area school district representatives recently planned a WorkKeys pilot test for students. "Once the business community learns how well-prepared our students are, there will be greater incentive to fine-tune curriculum, motivate students, and assist in career planning," Hadlick says. "We hope to increase the number of students who enter post-secondary education with clear career goals, and who will demonstrate that Central New York has a highly skilled labor pool."
Syracuse-area companies like Solvay Paperboard are excited about WorkKeys' potential. "I look forward to the day when an applicant comes to us and says, 'Here are my WorkKeys assessments,'" Freeh says. For now, she is pleased with the results. "We have a solid tool here that gives us new confidence in the people we hire," she says. "The support out of SU has been extraordinarily helpful."
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