WorkReady: Building a Skills Foundation for Maine

Merely having an up-to-date resume and being able to craft a cover letter are no longer enough to conduct a successful job search. Workers that have been in the same industry for decades and suddenly find themselves out of work are mystified by the entire protocol of how to get a job, and how it’s changed.

In light of that shift in the job market and the subsequent changes taking place in job-search procedures, are there training programs for Mainers that address these various needs? Furthermore, how important are basic skills for Maine’s workforce, and how does this impact Maine’s overall workforce, and affect the state’s economic well-being?

WorkReady™ is a 60-hour foundational skills training program developed to meet the requirements set forth by key Maine employers, providing businesses with workers possessing basic skills—being able to show up for work, on time, as scheduled, ready for work; able to work as a team; understanding the appropriate way to handle and react to workplace conflict; knowledgeable about basic business practices. All identified as common baseline skills required in new employees.

An ongoing focus of WorkReady™ has been on maintaining strong relationships with employers. With a curriculum centered on specific skills clearly identified by employers, having employers evaluate and critique the program regularly, providing feedback to the Statewide Steering Committee and local partners is essential for the ongoing success of WorkReady™.

Jade Arn, WorkReady™ coordinator for Coastal Counties Workforce, Inc., sees the importance of WorkReady™, especially for the regional employers that she works with.

“WorkReady™ fills an important void in our region and elsewhere matching people with the essential basic skills employers are looking for, with a host of employers that demand these kinds of skills,” said Arn. “It’s interesting that despite the economic downturn, we’re finding many employers struggling to fill positions. I think it’s because there is a skills gap, and WorkReady™ is helping to bridge that gap,” she said.

Additionally, each time WorkReady™ is offered, a key component of the three-week training is the mock interview day. This is when local area employers set aside time to visit the training and conduct actual interviews with the trainees. Each trainee has the opportunity to sit for three to four interviews, usually lasting about 20-30 minutes. The participating employer then provides valuable feedback to the interviewee.

With the growth of the program, employer participation has expanded to include lunch and learns, where employer representatives spend about an hour talking about their business, some of the advantages and benefits they offer employees, and why they might be a great fit for graduates completing the program.

Given the number of programs taking place across the state, WorkReady™ would especially benefit by forging strong partnerships with statewide organizations, especially groups and organizations like SHRM, as well as regional HR associations.

“Our biggest challenge right now is connecting our trained candidates and finding the right match with an employer,” said Arn.

WorkReady™ History Lesson

As far back as 2004, conversations between workforce and education leaders in the state were taking place about the need to develop some kind of an initiative, which would target very specific gaps in skills among Maine’s working population. In early 2006, a group of partners was convened in Lewiston that included, the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investement Board, Lewiston Adult Education, representatives from Maine’s Department of Labor, Lewiston/Auburn Economic Growth Council, and key businesses such as L.L. Bean, Callahan & Callahan, and others. This partnership launched a localized pilot, and WorkReady™ was on its way. The curriculum had been developed by select Maine Adult Education staff, as well as other local Adult Education directors.

As now a statewide program, WorkReady™ is guided by a Statewide Steering Committee, which provides program oversight, develops by-laws and guidelines, and also approves applications from Adult Education programs and others looking to launch new programs. Each one of Maine’s local workforce boards are signatories on a memorandum of understanding that exists between them and Maine Adult Education/Department of Education.

Coastal Counties Workforce, Inc. the local workforce investment board in Area 4 (York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, and Waldo counties), has developed a spate of successful WorkReady™ programs in their region.

WorkReady™ : Meeting at the Intersection of Workforce and Economic Development

Given Maine’s recent focus on higher education, especially attempts to raise the percentage of Mainers holding a four-year degree, it’s easy to dismiss foundational skills programs like WorkReady™. They’re not as “sexy,” and may often get downplayed by policy makers, and others. However, community leaders, particularly leaders focused on the intersection where workforce and economic development meet view WorkReady™ as a key component in building regional economic strength, through ensuring a strong local workforce—a workforce that possess skills provided by WorkReady™. All of this begins with foundational skills.

A candidate for WorkReady™ must first pass an assessment (the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems, or CASAS), which makes a determination about basic literacy in reading and math. Then there is the informational interview, a mandatory orientation process, and a rigorous three-to-four-week training period closely approximating the workday. All of this ensures that a graduate of WorkReady™ leaves training with the kind of qualities that employers are clamoring for. Beyond that, a WorkReady™ graduate has a much better sense about what it means to create value for an employer.

John Butera, Executive Director for the Central Maine Growth Council considers a program like WorkReady™ as a key initiative in his region’s long-term economic development strategy.

“WorkReady™ is a critical component and is part of a much broader strategy in our region,” said Butera. “In our area, we’re looking to join workforce and economic development efforts and WorkReady plays a key role in that strategy. It also has the capacity to engage employers in the community and bring them onboard as partners in this effort.”

WorkReady™ offers employers numerous benefits beyond mere “work readiness.” Given the continued escalation of costs associated with recruitment, as well as the subsequent retention issues many companies currently struggle with, WorkReady™ provides a built-in screening process for employers willing to take a look at a WorkReady™ graduate for employment.

[This is an article that was published in the recent edition of HR Times, Maine’s Connection to Human Resources—this issue was included in the welcome packets for all 700 attendees at the 15th Annual Maine Human Resources Convention, held May 11-14.—jb]

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