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Testing Employees to Find the Best

Albuquerque, N.M., was chosen as a pilot city to see if assessing job candidates' career readiness could reduce turnover as well as hiring time and training costs.

New Mexico has a problem: 21 percent of its citizens never graduate high school. The city of Albuquerque also has a problem: It has a hard time finding the right people for entry-level, high-turnover positions. Where these problems collide is in job requirements.

Want to be a bus driver in Albuquerque? You need a high school diploma for that. How about a sanitation employee? Better have at least a GED. This leaves the city with vacant jobs and an untapped employment base. The question is, does a piece of paper make someone more qualified for these entry-level positions than a person with five, 10 or 30 years of work experience? According to the WorkKeys assessment, maybe not.

WorkKeys is a test created by ACT, a nonprofit organization that specializes in education and workforce development, to measure a person’s skills and career readiness in areas like understanding and following workplace procedures, teamwork and comprehension. By measuring a person’s potential to learn and perform well in a certain job, employers can help reduce turnover and training costs as well as the amount of time it takes to find the right people -- the reasoning is that less motivated job candidates aren't as likely to apply when they realize they have to take a battery of tests.

Albuquerque was chosen as a pilot city for implementing WorkKeys at the government level by Innovate+Educate, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing STEM education. The assessment is part of a larger state program run by Innovate+Educate called New Options New Mexico that's being funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

I spoke with Mike Smith, the director of Albuquerque’s Public Service University, the city department that creates and deploys learning and training solutions for city employees, to find out how the city plans to use the WorkKeys assessment to find the best employees to fill high-turnover positions. His answers appear below in this edited transcript.

How did Albuquerque decide to use the WorkKeys assessment?

Innovate+Educate approached us. They wanted a large municipality to try it. At the same time, we realized we have the problems they’re talking about. We have jobs -- a lot of which are entry level -- that we’re having a hard time retaining people for. We looked at the process they proposed, and it made business sense to start a pilot that they would fund for us.

What positions will the city be using WorkKeys for?

The nice thing is that it can be used for entry-level jobs to senior executive level jobs. To get the impact we want, we looked at entry-level, high-turnover jobs like bus and van drivers. Before WorkKeys, the city’s minimum requirement for a bus driver was one to two years experience in customer service and a high school diploma. Then you'd have up to six months to work at the city's transit department, and we'd train you every day to get your CDL [commercial driver’s license] and be able to drive our buses.

In New Mexico, you don’t need a high school diploma for a CDL, so requiring the diploma restricted a whole potential recruitment base. There are good CDL drivers out there that could be good bus drivers that maybe didn’t graduate high school or get a GED. But how do we assess their ability to learn? Research shows you need a college-ready level of reading to get a CDL. So we said, what if we applied a WorkKeys skills-based assessment for reading? We get thousands of applications per year for bus drivers, and it takes time and money to review these. Only the serious ones apply when you tell them we need to assess their skills.

So to start, we’re doing Motor Coach and Sun Van operators [city buses and vans for senior citizens and people with handicaps]; then residential and collection drivers in solid waste management -- this position has high turnover and is one of the most dangerous jobs I’ve ever seen.  We'll also use the test for airfield workers at the airport -- an entry-level position where you're working around planes and you need workplace observation skills. And we'll administer the test to aviation police officers, but we didn’t drop the high school diploma requirement for this position.

We’re on track to also use the assessment for animal service workers who deal with intake, care, euthanasia and daily interaction with animals. We will drop the high school requirement on that. The other day, we had someone without a high school diploma but 30 years experience on a farm apply for a kennel position -- WorkKeys will help us there in the future.

What happens if someone doesn’t pass the WorkKeys assessment?

We don’t think as a government or as an employer that we stop there. Maybe someone really wants to be a bus driver. Through a program with ACT, we're giving applicants the opportunity to boost their skills through training to improve their work readiness. If someone doesn’t hit the required WorkKeys score the first time, we give them an online account for KeyTrain [the ACT online training system based on the WorkKeys assessment], and tell them to train, test and then reapply. If you want it bad enough, we’ll help you.

Are there any potential uses for WorkKeys for your existing employees?

We’re using it for our present workforce to build their professional development and specifically looking at jobs that don’t require a college education. We’re asking: How do you get administrative assistants to move up? How do you use WorkKeys to create a career portal to say, once you hit a certain skill level you might qualify for a new position?

We did it recently in a pilot program. We had an entry-level position for employees who repair traffic signals and fabricate road signs. The city created a new apprentice position, and once people get in, they’ll have the opportunity to move up. But in order for that to work, you have to get the right person in at the entry level. We had 400 applications come in. Of the 400, we had 115 hit the minimum requirements -- including having a high school diploma. Of that group, only 77 showed up for all three WorkKeys exams. Thirty-three passed the minimum testing requirements. We added a mechanical aptitude assessment. This got us down to 17 that showed up, and seven of those passed. So in three weeks, the hiring pool went from 400 down to seven that have an aptitude for mechanical jobs.

What immediate benefits are you anticipating?

There are certain things we’ll see within the first few months -- hiring time reduction, turnover reduction and increased efforts to get new employees from entry level to effective level [a level where workers can do their jobs effectively without additional supervision].

What long-term benefits do you hope to see?

We think we’ll see reduction in costs, reduction in time it takes to hire employees, increased retention because we’re hiring the right person, and opening up the recruitment pool. In the long run, you hire the better person, open up new opportunities and save money.

How will you know the WorkKeys assessment is working the way the city intends?

We will initiate an ROI study next month with Innovate+Educate. We plan to do it over six months to one year for initial results. It will probably take two to three years to get a good measure.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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