“They play a role in developing that (Work Ready) plan,” said Robert Curry, executive director of the Kentucky Work Ready Communities program in the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. In some cases, a local education official has even led the charge, he said.
The role of K-12 education in the Work Ready effort encompasses pushing the high school graduation rate higher – an initiative that has been well underway statewide for the past few years – and developing a soft skills program so that students understand the behavior expected in the workplace. High schools and area technology centers also encourage students to seek a National Career Readiness Certificate, which indicates job readiness through the ACT WorkKeys test that measures abilities in reading for information, applied mathematics and locating information. Curry said the state currently pays for all seniors enrolled at area technology centers to take this assessment, which adults also can take to better their employment chances.
Work Ready certification further requires communities to achieve certain percentages of two-year degree holders, which, on its face, sounds more like a task for postsecondary education. But Curry notes that K-12 education also can play a part in that.
“Now, with dual-credit programs available in high school, that plays a key role in getting students enrolled in postsecondary and achieving postsecondary education, and coming out of high school with a number of credits so that they can achieve their bachelor’s, associate degree or whatever at a quicker pace,” Curry said.
Adult education also plays a key role in another Work Ready requirement – reducing the numbers of people without a high school diploma or equivalent.
“Education, to me, almost has to take the lead on this initiative,” said Martin County Area Technology Center director Martha Williams, who is among those spearheading that county’s effort.
Seal of approval
A work seal or certification for soft skills was not much of a leap for Caldwell County Schools, said curriculum, instruction and assessment specialist Gretchen Wetzel. “It was a natural progression from what we’re already doing,” she said, though the program “gave us a little extra push.”
Caldwell County has been designated a Work Ready Community in Progress. The school district’s work ethics certification is a compilation “borrowed” from other communities, she said, but the standards could be universal for any district. Caldwell and Lyon county districts will be working together to further refine their work ethics certification (see sidebar).
The work seal or certification is intended to be a two-way street; participating employers can agree to recognize this when graduates come to them for a job.
“Our community has agreed to give them interviews if there is a job opening in one of our businesses in town,” Wetzel said. “We’re a small town, so it’s a nice bridge between the community and the high school and the school system.”
The Caldwell County district’s work ethics certification program officially begins with the 2016-17 school year, but efforts begun earlier are continuing. Wetzel said all juniors at the high school get a half-hour of soft skills training each day for a semester. Students learn how to handle job interviews, about etiquette and resume building, among other things, and take a final exam on the material.
Student response to the soft skills program and also the National Career Readiness Certification has been good, Wetzel said. “I think the first thing you have to teach them is why it’s important that they know these things and once they buy into the why, they want to learn,” she said, adding, “It’s important that they have those skills in high school too, to be successful here.”
In the school districts in Boyd and Greenup counties, which are certified Work Ready Communities, local business and industry representatives are taking up the role of teaching soft skills for the work ethics seal program in those school systems, starting with seniors, said Tim Gibbs, president/CEO of Ashland Alliance, the economic development agency that serves the two counties.
“It’s not coming from the school systems, but it’s coming from business and industry into the school systems, about how they operate, what they’re looking for, why it’s important, those types of things,” he explained. “We went to the schools and said, ‘Let us work within your master calendar, whether it’s during the year, during planning periods, or if it’s in the spring after your testing when you’re doing more with students in their career planning – let us work within your existing framework.”
At the Martin County Area Technology Center, Williams has seen the pass rate for the WorkKeys test, which leads to the National Career Readiness Certificate, increase to 91 percent, from 19 percent five years ago. Williams said she will be collaborating with the high school to help other seniors prepare for WorkKeys.
The drive for NCRC holders includes encouragement to and from employers, she said. When Martin County businesses agree to sign a letter of support for Work Ready, serve on one of its subcommittees or agree to accept NCRC as a hiring preference, they get their picture taken for the local newspaper with a large “We support a Work Ready Community” banner, along with a window placard to display at their site. The county currently is certified as a Work Ready Community in Progress.
Brian Harper, secondary instruction supervisor for Marshall County Schools, who was involved with that county’s Work Ready team, said the high school extolls the benefits of the NCRC to its seniors, stressing “the importance of whenever they go to college if they have a certificate it allows them to get part-time jobs; also, if they were leaving, to be work ready as far as … being able to apply for jobs even locally for industry.”
Educators showed the seniors a list of companies that recognize the NCRC, and the school board agreed to pay for seniors to take the WorkKeys if needed. Of 351 Marshall County seniors, all but four passed the test last year, Harper said.
School districts can ease the county’s burden in meeting this requirement, he added, because the scores of 18-year-old students count, and a 17-year-old who passes the test counts when he or she turns 18.
The NCRC requirement for Work Ready Community status can be a tough one to meet, said Ashland Alliance’s Gibbs, because it can be met only through the WorkKeys testing. Students may have various industry certifications based on their career interests, but that does not count, he noted.