Handling the learning curve: Career readiness certificate puts workers at the “head of the line”

Photo of computer lab.
Nearly all jobs nowdays require at least minimal computer skills, a focus of workforce development initiatives in the state.

Vermont’s biggest workforce challenge at the moment isn’t the unemployment rate. The state Department of Labor announced last Tuesday that unemployment dropped another 0.2 percent last month, down to 5.1 percent, the lowest rate in more than three years.

Regional Department of Labor Manager Larry Sudlow, who runs the Rutland and Bennington offices, calls that very close to technical “full employment.” National and international economic stumbling blocks may yet get in the way, and more than 15 percent of the state’s workforce is discouraged and underemployed, but by most measures the state appears to be recovering.

The significant challenge for businesses is finding enough qualified people and helping them to develop necessary new skills. Many Vermont workers meanwhile struggle to keep a job or prepare for something better.

And for those who are under- or unemployed, adds Bill Morison, a former New Hampshire businessman who coordinates workforce development initiatives for the Community College of Vermont, the problem can be anything from learning how to succeed in an interview, developing more confidence, dealing with stress, or obtaining a credential that will provide an edge.

Of the top 10 fastest-growing jobs in Vermont, seven require a two-year college degree or more for entry, according to a 2010 state report. Two more call for specific post-high school training.

In response, the Labor Department and CCV have been building and refining a collaborative approach to workforce education and development in recent years, highlighted by an employee credentialing program that leads to a National Career Readiness Certificate. Free 10-week courses leading to certification run at various regional locations. At least 600 people have completed the program, which meshes academic and professional skills.

Bennington County is emerging as a potential model. A joint CCV/DOL office covering the region coordinates apprenticeships and career readiness, while the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center forges partnerships with business. About 100 people turned out last week for a local jobs forum, organized by the Greater Bennington Industrial Corp. and led by the two organizations. The topic was training and new jobs making ultra-light carbon fiber parts for cars, airplanes and hospitals at area composite plants.

Plasan North America, which produces military armor, has a non-military sister company that is hiring. Three Bennington-based companies,including Plason, have developed a training program with CCV and the Labor Department tailored to the skills needed in their industry.

A Career Readiness Certificate doesn’t guarantee a job, notes BCIC director Peter Odierna. But people who do obtain them “will beat the front of the line.”

Enhancing skills, increasing productivity

In 2007, Vermont officials noticed troubling workforce skills gaps in areas like teamwork and computer skills. Vermont Technical College teacher Allan Rodgers, a former CEO, conducted a series of industry forums that year to find a “different way of doing business,” Morison recalls.

Two things Rodgers found were “a general lack of career readiness” and the need for new training to prepare supervisors. Among the under-employed, Morison adds, “Professional skills were lacking.”

Last March, CCV formally partnered with Vermont Technical College to launch Vermont Corporate College, which offers customized courses “for people struggling with the next step.” Morison coordinates the project as part of his CCV portfolio. The services include needs assessment, training design and execution, and customized degree programs.

In September, CCV received a $2.5 million job-training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to better match its offerings with what employers consider the most-needed skills. A new academic program offers a fast-track associate degree for adults enrolled in courses that provide training in high-demand, high-growth career fields.

Nationally, the Labor Department’s Workforce Innovation Fund is putting $98 million into employment and training that enhances workforce investment, with a special focus on “vulnerable populations.” With investment money moving globally, developed nations and states should have a better chance of attracting capital investment if more of their workers have up-to-date skills. Academic research says that past workforce education initiatives enhanced individual competence and productivity, and also improved the bottom line.

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed 2013 budget includes $4.8 million for a Next Generation education and training initiative, based on recommendations of the state’s Workforce Development Council, also a collaboration between CCV and the Labor Department.

In 2010 the council assessed underlying state trends and concluded, among other things, that Vermont’s workforce is expected to begin shrinking this year and will continue to decline over the next decade.

Considerably higher skills will be required to win and keep a good job, the report concluded, but employers claim sufficiently skilled Vermont workers can be hard to find. Good jobs that were once available to those with limited education now normally require strong skills in reading, communication, math and the use of computers.

Almost all jobs in health care, graphics and banking require specialized information technology and software skills, the council learned. It noted that employers tend to invest in those who already have some skills. Half of college graduates receive on-the-job training, it added, but fewer than 20 percent of school dropouts.

The council also found that more than 1,000 Vermont students leave high school each year. Those lacking a high school diploma earn 65 percent of the U.S. average wage; those with a bachelor degree (or other relevant credential) earn 131 percent.

“To address these challenges,” the report said, “we will focus on education and training strategies to increase worker productivity, provide the training necessary to help underemployed Vermonters move up into better jobs, and meet the needs of employers for skilled workers.”

As Patricia Moulton Powden, deputy secretary of Commerce and Community Development, recently explained on Vermont Public Radio, “We are hearing about challenges of finding certain skills, even entry-level folks. Are they properly equipped in today’s technology? Have they got the right reading and writing and computer literacy skills and ability to work in teams and be analytical thinkers?”

GMCR shows the way to readiness

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters “propelled us into the business side,” Morison says. Beginning with its Waterbury headquarters, the company wanted to assess the skills of current employees, help them chart careers, and define the essential skills needed at its manufacturing sites.

“Only a few years ago, you could be hired without computer skills and survive in the mostly manual environment,” explains Prudence Sullivan, GMCR’s director of Continuous Learning & Organizational Effectiveness.

“Today, that’s not feasible. Even if employees simply want to take a day off, they must enter it on a computer,” she says. “Employee self-evaluations at performance appraisal time are also done by computer.”

Working with CCV, GMCR established a non-site certification program with six modules. A professional profiler worked with employees on WorkKeys testing, an assessment method that defines tasks and skills involved in various jobs.

ACT National Career Readiness Certificate
Sample of the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate. Image courtesy of ACT.

Eight job profiles were developed, and everyone who finished the course also earned a National Career Readiness Certificate. GMCR saw benefits in standardized measurement of skills. The company has since implemented the program at all U.S. plants.

“To be successful we need businesses pulling employees in, saying they would like people to have a National Career Readiness Certificate,” Morison argues. Since 2006, the national certificate has become an industry-recognized, portable credential that tells employers the worker or job candidate has the essential skills needed for success.

More than a million certificates have been issued, and about 40 states have state or regional certificate programs. Certificates verify both cognitive skills and various work-related behaviors, known as soft skills. The cognitive skills include problem solving, critical thinking, proficiency with graphics, reading specialized texts, using information to solve problems, and mathematical reasoning and calculation.

People can earn a national certificate by taking WorkKeys tests on applied mathematics, locating information, and reading. Platinum, gold, silver and bronze levels are awarded, based on the test scores. People at the bronze level qualify for about 35 of the profiled jobs. Silver indicates appropriate skills for about 65 percent, and gold means one is ready for 90 percent of the jobs.

Collaboration and service

In announcing Vermont’s certificate program, CCV described it as a way to “improve your work skills, enhance your ability to get a job, and raise your confidence in meeting your career goals.”

The state’s “spin off was to include soft skills,” Morison says.

Another approach is “job profiling.” The objective here “is to observe jobs and help businesses to determine the skills levels needed to perform them successfully,” he explains.

CCV already works with a variety of industry partners to design and implement programs, and wants to add more. In addition to GMCR and the composite companies in Bennington, the list to date includes Cabot Cheese, Vermont Country Store, Burlington International Airport, the Visiting Nurse Association, and several hospitals and health centers.

In some “small-scale situations,” consortiums are sometimes created to design the courses. In Newport, Morison adds, a biotech company is planning to fill 250 jobs and wants to certify people.

CCV also has a Supervisory Success Program to prepare future and new supervisors, including workshops for managers and frontline employees on leadership, customer service, communication and hospitality. A separate Homeland Security Certificate Program has courses on transportation, border security and intelligence analysis.

For individual workers, Morison suggests, “The payoff is how to get and keep a job. For employers it’s finding people they can hire.”

Last August, secretary of commerce and community development Lawrence Miller responded to a criticism by Vermont Republican Party that Gov. Peter Shumlin was not focusing on job creation by pointing to the Governor’s Career Readiness Certificate program. It show that administration was setting “a high standard for interagency collaboration and customer service,” he said.

Going forward, more employers are expected to seek out and reward those workers with the education, technical skills and creative flexibility needed by business and other enterprises to compete and adapt. Whether they seek a certificate or not, one thing is clear: People who can rapidly adapt and handle the learning curve of their jobs are apt to have a competitive advantage for long-term success.

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Greg Guma

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  • walter carpenter

    The biggest barrier is the ridiculously high cost of getting a collegiate or technical education here. It is nuts that we pay state taxes and then have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an education, putting us in debt for half of our lives.

    • Christian Noll

      Walter agreed.

      It is quite sad that Vermont tax payers are paying for those new buildings and prestigious clubs, but then denied furthering our own education.

      UVM and Champlain College are a disgrace to our own higher education. I would have had my PhD by now had I stayed in France. I should have stayed there.

      People got mean over here in the states. Police became dishonest and corruption seeped its way into Burlington, Vermont.

      I have to say I’m ashamed to be an American at times.

  • Paul Forlenza

    Great article and I’m delighted VT is stepping up to this challenge. Two comments:

    1 – CCV also has an HHS grant to train students interested in becoming Health Information Technology Professionals.

    2 – Tom Friedman in a recent NYT’s article describes the new paradigm business leaders have: “Source everywhere (globally), manufacture everywhere, and sell everywhere”.

    He also quotes business leaders that express no responsibility for creating jobs in the U.S. If that is the case, then Obama is right in proposing to eliminate the tax credits CEO’s sought and received during the Bush years.

  • walter carpenter

    “I have to say I’m ashamed to be an American at times.”

    Christian, I am with you on that one. I spent decades trying to pay off a student loan and often wished I did live in France, Australia, or some other place.