Job seekers in Forrest, Lamar counties could soon be taking ACT employment test

October 12, 2018

Article originally posted by Hattiesburg American

Gene Escolas gives his prospective hourly workers a special test to make sure they can handle the many tasks that come with working at Berry Global — the Hattiesburg bottle cap-making plant.

It’s called the ACT WorkKeys Assessment, and the human resource manager uses it to measure skills required for success in the workplace.

“I think it tells me that somebody is capable of learning and has a basic skill set,” Escolas said. “We put people through a lot of training, and if they don’t get it, it causes a lot of issues.”

The company’s machines fabricate 1,200 bottle caps a minute, and workers have to be trained extensively to keep up. For that training, they need to be able to read well and do math. The ACT WorkKeys Assessment assures Escolas his hires have those abilities.

“I want to train people successfully,” he said. “I want to focus on the positive.

“I don’t want to sit in a meeting and say, ‘People can’t do their job — what are we going to do.’ “

What’s interesting about this test isn’t so much that Berry Global has been administering it for nearly two decades, but that the Area Development Partnership and Pearl River Community College are working to get a majority of employers in Forrest and Lamar counties — health, manufacturing, distribution, financial and retail — to make the test standard for intended employees.

“Stereotypically, we think of ACT and we think of that dreaded test you took in high school, but we need not think of it as the college entrance exam,” said Terri Clark, dean of career, technical and workforce education with PRCC. “This can help the person looking for a job and the person hiring for that position.”

There are already 14 ACT Certified Work Ready counties in Mississippi, including Hinds and Washington, with many more on the path toward certification.

“(PRCC has) been administering the test for at least 12 years,” Clark said. “Adult education and career technical students take it before leaving the program.

“Hands down — 80 percent of companies require a pre-employment test. This is their test of choice.”

The Work Ready initiative got its start in 2012. Nationwide, 184 communities in 25 states had obtained certification by July 2017.

Hinds County became a Work Ready county in August. Kemsye Smith, workforce development coordinator with the county Economic Development Authority, said the test provides employees with a way to self-evaluate, while giving employers the means to quickly see if a worker has the minimum skills to hold a position

“We believe that WorkKeys will play a prominent role in preparing our workforce for the jobs of today and the jobs of the future,” she said in an email. “We see a future in which our citizens possess skills that enable them to hold jobs paying wages that contribute to a high quality of life.

“Certification can serve as a competitive advantage for our county for economic development projects, whether attempting to attract a new employer or retain or expand an existing employer.”

In the Hattiesburg-area, the test costs $33 for high school students but is free to others looking to find or retain employment. It is also free to PRCC students, who can take the test at PRCC or at the Win Job Center.

A Hattiesburg meeting in September sponsored by the ADP and PRCC drew about 100 regional employers, education providers and elected officials to hear about ACT Work Keys.

David Hogan, president of the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, was one of those in attendance.

“(The test) will give employers a better understanding of where potential employees rank within their skill and education set,” he said. “I believe it will help with turnover and attrition.”

Lamar County administrator Jody Waits also saw benefits.

“In the broadest sense, we could quantify a workforce that is ready to go based on what their skill sets are,” he said. “It helps the job seeker because it gives them a credential that shows their employability.

“From an employer’s standpoint, it gives one more criteria when choosing an employee.”

To be a certified ACT Work Ready county, several steps are needed. Committees, including county officials, are formed, special ACT boot camps are attended and grassroots change has to be implemented so employees and businesses will accept the ACT WorkKeys test.

So far, the ADP has submitted Forrest and Lamar counties’ applications to ACT and they have been approved. Some committee members have gone to their first boot camp and plan to attend a second one next month. Supporters are meeting with industry leaders in the area to promote the test.

A 2014 survey by showed an area’s availability of skilled labor was a top priority for businesses looking to locate in a community. Daniel Jayroe, ADP community development director, said the results of the ACT WorkKeys test can prove that skilled labor is available in certified Work Ready communities.

The test’s questions are based on situations in the everyday work world. It has three, 55-minute sections — math, literacy and documents.

The results of the test will determine the taker’s skill level, identify skills that need to be improved, match skills to specific job requirements and show employers what skills the employee already has.

At the conclusion of the test, the taker is given a bronze, silver, gold or platinum certificate, as well as a score and range.

Cassandra Turner took the test before she was hired as a quality lab technician at Berry Global. She said her results gave her confidence she could succeed at the company.

“I didn’t mind (taking it), because it was a requirement of the job,” she said. “When you come here, you have so much to learn in different areas, and it’s good to know you can adapt to it.”

Washington County has been a certified Work Ready community since January 2017. Cary Karlson, executive director of the Washington County Economic Alliance, said it used to be a manufacturer had to interview 200 people to find a handful of employees to consider. Now, a business can easily cull applicants based on their performance on WorkKeys.

“We just recently landed a new company to come to Greenville called Nufarm Americas,” he said. “They were not that familiar with the test, but once we explained it to them, they decided they’re going to require everybody to take the test and go to basic manufacturing training.

“They’ll hire 68 people.”

Karlson said, without the test, Nufarm might have been hesitant.

“The stronger point of it is, we can show that we can deliver a workforce that can be trained to meet their needs,” he said. “I think they think that Mississippi doesn’t have the trained workforce, and this takes the question out of their mind.”

In Washington County, 2,000 people have taken the test, and more than 1,100 have obtained the silver certificate.

A 2017 ACT Work Ready Communities survey found 82 percent of counties were using  Work Ready Community data to promote their county to new businesses and 91 percent were using it to improve local workforce development efforts.

Clark says with the data from the test, Forrest and Lamar counties will be able to give employers information on local worker’s skills and compare them to communities regionally and around the nation.

For Escolas, it’s a little simpler than that.

“You won’t have the human resource problems you used to deal with — you won’t have the headaches,” he said.