National Career Readiness Certificates Help Michigan Manufacturer Evaluate Existing and New Talent
Wolverine Coil Spring, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Assess the talents of current employees to evaluate training needs and select new employees with documented workplace skill levels
Test all current employees with three WorkKeys® assessments and institute the National Career Readiness Certificate as a pre-interview tool for new employees
- By testing current employees, the company:
- Gained an understanding of the current talent pool
- Identified opportunities for additional, targeted training
- Located "diamond in the rough" employees who were underemployed and moved them into "fasttrack" training for advancement
- Identified critical thinkers on the current team—those more likely to be open to innovation
- By requiring a National Career Readiness Certificate for applicants, the company gained confidence that new full-time employees have the foundational skills that show they are ready to train and ready to contribute to company success
Founded in 1946, Wolverine Coil Spring of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a third-generation family business producing metal-formed products for manufacturers worldwide. The company specializes in manufacturing metal springs (coiled wire) which make up about 50 percent of its product line, and produces a diverse array of stampings and clips, wire forms, and assemblies. Approximately 60–70% of Wolverine's products are used in the automotive industry.
Many of the company's 50 full-time employees have been with the firm for more than a decade, and some have worked there for as long as 30 years. Jay Dunwell, grandson of the company's founder, became president in 1995. He describes the company's workforce this way: "Our production floor requires skilled Machine Operators, Set-Up Technicians, Tool Makers, and Material Handlers. We also have Engineers, Quality Staff, Production Control Specialists, Salespeople, Accounting, and Office Support personnel."
Dunwell characterizes the metal-formed products industry as "challenging" in recent years. "The 2009 'cliff dive' by the domestic auto industry has made it tough for small firms like Wolverine. Fortunately, there are a lot of uses for small metal products, so there really aren't too many limits to growing our business." Tight margins and heightened competition make it essential to identify and invest in processes that raise efficiency. High-tech manufacturing equipment, such as CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machines, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the knowledge and skills of the workforce often determines whether these investments pay off. "It's critical that we have the right people on the team, performing the right jobs to maximize our success," says Dunwell. "It's not so much what you do, but who you use to do the things you do."
"In one case, we had an employee who went from an entry-level position packing springs in shipping boxes to eventually operating our most sophisticated CNC equipment. In addition to finding occasional 'diamond in the rough' employees, this testing is helping us build career ladders for our employees based on their training plans and rising skill levels." Jay Dunwell, president, Wolverine Coil Spring
Improving workforce quality has always been a priority for Dunwell. "Innovation is critical to the success of many businesses—whether it's product innovation or process innovation. If you don't have critical thinkers, if you don't have problem solvers within your talent pool, you're going to miss out on many innovation opportunities. And without innovative thinkers, you may be missing out on what could be the single most important factor in whether your business survives or it doesn't."
This perspective matched up well with objectives established by West Michigan WIRED, a nationally recognized economic development initiative launched in the Grand Rapids area in late 2006. Dunwell served on a team that developed and submitted a funding request to the U.S. Department of Labor as part of the Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) program. The West Michigan initiative was among the first to be funded, and the decision to use ACT assessment solutions to evaluate the region's workforce skills was cited as an important reason for the application's success.
Initiative organizers planned to administer WorkKeys assessments and award Michigan National Career Readiness Certificates to document worker skills throughout the region. They quickly recognized that engaging employers in the initiatives represented an essential first step to success. Dunwell's advocacy for improving workforce skills ensured that Wolverine Coil Spring would be among the first companies to get involved.
Skills Testing at Wolverine
"In 2007, as we were rolling out this WIRED initiative, the management team at Wolverine decided to test everyone—all our current full-time employees," says Dunwell. "Test anxiety set in when we began telling our team about the National Career Readiness Certificate and the three WorkKeys tests that power the Certificate (Applied Mathematics, Reading for Information, and Locating Information). People were asking 'Does this mean I could get fired if I don't do well on the tests?'"
Dunwell assured Wolverine employees their test results would remain confidential—only he and the company's Human Resources manager would have access to them. "We tried to reassure them that the testing would give us an understanding of our talent pool and skill sets, and lo and behold, we did find some telling things."
"There were a few individuals who didn't score so well; and not surprisingly, they were also the individuals who occasionally had quality issues on the production floor," Dunwell recalls. "It became clear that these workers had skill gaps and just weren't able to handle some of the work we were asking of them. These skill deficits pointed out the need to offer specific training to close those gaps."
"We also found a few individuals who scored extremely well yet were doing some entry-level occupations or activities. We put those individuals on a fast track with some technical training and provided advancement opportunities. In one case, we had an employee who went from an entry-level position packing springs in shipping boxes to eventually operating our most sophisticated CNC equipment," Dunwell reports. "In addition to finding occasional 'diamond in the rough' employees, this testing is helping us build career ladders for our employees based on their training plans and rising skill levels."
Once Wolverine had a good picture of its talent pool, there was no question about testing new employees using the same assessments. Applicants for full-time positions at Wolverine must now earn a Michigan National Career Readiness Certificate.
Building Support throughout the Region
Once WIRED funds became available, WorkKeys assessments could be offered to employers at no charge. In addition, the state of Michigan began testing all high school juniors with the same three assessments as part of the required Michigan Merit Exam. Dunwell remains engaged in the regional workforce initiative and helps persuade other employers to get involved.
In speaking with other employers, Dunwell shares the experience gained in testing the workforce at Wolverine and expresses the importance of the West Michigan initiative. "This is a tool. This is something that is happening in our community, and we are very fortunate that it's happening here. As employers, you don't want to miss out. It doesn't cost a thing to add a prerequisite to any job description that requires an applicant to present a National Career Readiness Certificate. It is simply a matter of asking for it: just ask for it. It's a very powerful, very simple message to not only employers, but job seekers—and unfortunately, we have plenty of those in Michigan."
"We have a K–12 system, connected directly to a workforce system, connected directly to employers that are using a tool, as part of an integrated process, around a common language, for the very first time." Rachael Jungblut, senior program manager at Grand Rapids Community College, director of the National Career Readiness Certificate Initiative for West Michigan WIRED
Rachael Jungblut, senior program manager at Grand Rapids Community College and director of the National Career Readiness Certificate Initiative for West Michigan WIRED, explains it this way: "When we began the process of employer engagement, it really was about building awareness, helping the employer understand that we were working to provide them with skilled workers. It was helpful for us to have a common language, and WorkKeys and the National Career Readiness Certificate are perfect tools for that. We needed to make employers aware of what the Certificate is, how it works, and to see that it's as simple as just asking for it. They needed to understand that if they did that, they really didn't need to do anything else. They were skeptical at first, but once they began to see the process in action, and use it to assess and select team members, the results followed."
Unique Alignment and Documented Success
Dunwell and Jungblut agree that their region of Michigan enjoys an unprecedented, nation-leading position of alignment in the implementation of WorkKeys and the Certificate. Jungblut says, "We have a K–12 system, connected directly to a workforce system, connected directly to employers that are using a tool, as part of an integrated process, around a common language, for the very first time."
In October 2009, Jay Dunwell was awarded the first-ever ACT Employer of Excellence Award at a special ceremony in Washington, DC. Martin Scaglione, president and chief operating officer of the ACT Workforce Development Division, says that "Wolverine Coil Spring was selected for its successful implementation of ACT resources to improve workforce quality, and for its role as a tireless advocate for local and regional adoption of initiatives to ensure a strong and skilled workforce into the future."