Enhancing Workforce Quality through Educational, Business, and Civic Collaboration in Elgin, Illinois

The Organizations

A cooperative effort involving the Chamber of Commerce, the city, the school district, and area business and industry leaders, with support from the community college, the Department of Employment Security, the workforce investment board, the public library, and United Way of Elgin

The Challenge

Develop and document the skills of the current and future workforce to benefit job seekers and employers, and strengthen economic development efforts in the region

The Solution

  • Offer online training, ACT's WorkKeys® assessments, and the National Career Readiness Certificate at no charge to unemployed job seekers
  • Offer online training in each of the five area high schools for skill development
  • Make the National Career Readiness Certificate available to high-performing high school seniors
  • Convince local employers to recognize the National Career Readiness Certificate presented by applicants

The Results

  • More than 1,500 area high school seniors have earned National Career Readiness Certificates
  • Approximately 70 area employers have signed a Letter of Intent and advertise their recognition of National Career Readiness Certificates
  • Business forums are held frequently to acquaint other employers with the benefits of The Certificate
  • The Chamber touts the area's documented workforce in economic development efforts to attract and retain employers

Patrick Hayes, founder and chairman of the board at Fabric Images, Inc. talks about the successful use of the National Career Readiness Certificate in Elgin's school district.


The Elgin collaboration began in 2007 when Bill Ratzburg, who then served as career and technical education coordinator for School District U-46, introduced the Chamber's Workforce Development Committee to ACT's WorkKeys assessments and the National Career Readiness Certificate. Ratzburg explained how two of the assessments had been adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education as part of the annual Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) completed by high school juniors, who also take the ACT® college entrance examination as part of the PSAE. He described the Applied Mathematics and Reading for Information assessments and endorsed their application as a measure of core workplace skills across occupational areas and job types. Ratzburg emphasized that these assessments would have enhanced value for students and parents if area businesses would recognize and embrace them in their hiring practices.

Patrick Hayes, founder and chairman of Fabric Images, Inc., chaired the Workforce Development Committee at the time. Following Ratzburg's passionate appeal, Hayes agreed to accompany Ratzburg to an ACT-sponsored WorkKeys National Conference in Indianapolis in spring 2008. “I returned a convert,” says Hayes. “I listened to convincing presentations by educators, employers, and governmental units from across the nation and saw what they were accomplishing. I felt that this was perfect for my company and for my city.” Hayes has since become a dedicated volunteer ambassador of WorkKeys testing and the National Career Readiness Certificate throughout Illinois and surrounding states. As the Chamber's Workforce Development Committee learned more, it became clear that Ratzburg's proposal held the potential to not only help job seekers, but to advance the interests of area employers and the community. “We knew that this would take time and a lot of work,” Hayes says. “The three-legged stool of education, business, and civic involvement would only work if we could build partnerships and if all three were equally committed. We still have a long way to go, but the progress is good.”

Progress At School District U-46

District U-46 is the second-largest school district in Illinois, with a total K–12 population of more than 40,000 students. The district includes five comprehensive high schools and one alternative high school.

Two of the WorkKeys assessments became a required component of the PSAE in 2001 for all high school juniors. However, the third assessment that powers the National Career Readiness Certificate, Locating Information, was not included. State funding issues have prevented adding the third assessment, so earning a National Career Readiness Certificate is difficult for high school seniors or graduates. Ratzburg was driven to remedy this situation and began pushing to add the third assessment for all district high school seniors who scored a Level 5 on the two assessments taken their junior year. His goal: send as many graduating seniors as possible into the workplace or college with both a diploma and a nationally recognized Certificate documenting their workplace skills. The first year of this voluntary program (2007) produced about 40 Certificate holders; the second, 80; the total jumped to 550 in the third year; and to 617 the next year. Carol DePue, who succeeded Ratzburg after his retirement, says, “In the spring of 2011, we will have 1,200 seniors take the third assessment to qualify for a Certificate.” It has been a challenge to find funds in the school district budget to cover the cost of the third assessment and The Certificate for so many students, she said. “But we'll find it. I definitely believe the WorkKeys assessments play an important role in college and career readiness. It's all about relevancy and making connections. When students work through the online curriculum from KeyTrain to prepare for the assessments, they begin to see how the math skills tested by Applied Mathematics relate to the workplace and how the comprehension skills tested by Reading for Information apply to a wide variety of job settings. Even our very top-notch students find these assessments challenging, and I think that's an eye opener for everyone about what they will face in the workplace. And everyone, even the college bound, will eventually be in the workplace.” Of the 617 Certificates awarded to the most recent senior class, 65 percent were Silver and 25 percent were Gold. DePue is hoping to increase the portion awarded Gold or Platinum in future years by encouraging KeyTrain use in Locating Information among eligible seniors before they take the assessment in the spring.

Seniors who earn a Certificate are celebrated by the district and the community. Certificates are awarded at each high school's senior recognition event in the spring, attended by parents, teachers, and administrators. And a district-wide reception is held annually at Elgin Community College to honor Certificate holders from all U-46 high schools in the presence of local business and civic leaders as well as parents. Hayes of Fabric Images spoke at a recent celebration and addressed parents this way: “I hope you realize that your son or daughter has accomplished something remarkable. Whether they plan to enter college or the workforce, they have achieved a core certification on which they can build their future.”

Progress At The Elgin Area Chamber Of Commerce

With more than 700 members, the Chamber serves a vibrant business community in Elgin. Part of the Chamber's mission is to do economic development work for the City of Elgin. Helping to lead that charge is Bob Malm. He reports that the U-46 WorkKeys program led the Chamber to think about what they could do for the workforce in Elgin and particularly for people seeking employment. “It just made sense to build on the good work the school district had begun,” says Malm, “and expand it for others. We agreed with Bill Ratzburg and Pat Hayes that success could only be gained if business leaders were aware of the National Career Readiness Certificate and would recognize it as a workplace credential with value for their organization.”

Malm reports that the initial push was simply to raise awareness for the assessments and The Certificate. “We continue to use every mechanism we can think of to educate business leaders about what this can mean for their hiring practices and what it can mean for the economic health and vitality of Elgin. One technique that adds great visibility is a bright red sticker for the entrance door of every business that signs a Letter of Intent indicating they recognize the National Career Readiness Certificate. That sticker alerts job seekers and the community at large that this is a real program, and that having a Certificate will help an applicant stand out from the crowd. I'm happy to say that the Chamber has a sticker on our door, and there is one on the door of City Hall as well,” says Malm. “We continue to have regular business forums to spread the word and sign up more employers. Those who have used The Certificate in their hiring are our best advocates.” The Chamber recently partnered with several area agencies to launch “The 1,000 Worker Skills Initiative.” The intention is to offer WorkKeys training, assessments, and a National Career Readiness Certificate—at no cost—to 1,000 unemployed residents in the Elgin Community College District. The initiative is funded by the United Way of Elgin and Elgin Community College, with support from the Chamber, the Gail Borden Public Library, the Illinois Department of Employment Security, the River Valley Workforce Investment Board, the City of Elgin, and School District U-46. It is designed to provide documented proof of an individual's skills to make it easier for them to find employment. The initiative is off to a solid start, according to Malm. “It's great for the individual job seeker, it helps employers sort through the stacks of applications they may get for each opening, and it helps strengthen the community.”

Progress At Elgin Community College

Serving 33 communities mostly in northern Kane County, Elgin Community College (ECC) currently has 12,000 full-time credit students on two campuses in Elgin. The city is just northwest of Chicago, about 30 miles from Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

Annabelle Rhoades, associate dean of academic support at ECC, says the college has offered a full suite of WorkKeys online training and assessments for several years. “When The 1,000 Worker Skills Initiative was proposed, our president, Dr. David Sam, who sits on the board of the Chamber and the board of United Way of Elgin, was supportive of ECC becoming the testing center for this joint initiative. We are happy to provide services to unemployed residents in our district so they can earn this credential to help them in their job search. Of the individuals we've tested thus far, most earn a Silver-level Certificate, and many indicate that they feel greater confidence seeking employment after finding success with the online training and assessments.” Rhoades plans to follow these individuals after they earn their Certificate with written surveys to see how they fared in finding work.

Progress at a Local Manufacturing Firm: Hoffer Plastics

Hoffer Plastics Corporation is a family-owned, custom injection molding company founded in 1953. It now employs 345 people in a single 360,000-square-foot facility in South Elgin and has enjoyed consistent growth. The company's products are sold primarily to other manufacturers in the packaging industry, the automotive industry, and other commercial/industrial firms, such as electronic and appliance manufacturers. Financially stable with a loyal customer base, the Hoffer Plastics workforce is not unionized. Eric Smith, director of human resources, says, “The fact that Hoffer has remained non-union for its entire history is a testament to the way ownership and leadership have treated employees. There is no unionization because there is no need.” The average tenure of Hoffer employees is about 14 years.

Smith was a member of the Chamber's Workforce Development Committee when Ratzburg began promoting WorkKeys and the National Career Readiness Certificate to the business community in Elgin. Smith now chairs that committee and has taken a leading role in implementing the full process at Hoffer Plastics. “We recently invited two ACT-authorized job profilers to analyze two positions in our plant: molding technician and inspection technician. These two positions make up about 60 percent of the total employee base at Hoffer and about 45 percent of the hiring we will do this year, so they were logical positions to analyze. The process was rigorous but straightforward and simple,” reports Smith. “By requiring applicants to score at the minimum levels defined by the profile reports, we will have greater confidence that the applicant has the ‘gray matter' necessary to be able to grasp and retain the information that will be required during the onboarding and training process.”

“It's so easy to implement,” says Smith. “All any area employer has to do is require that applicants complete the assessments at ECC and then come back with a Certificate in hand. We used to do our own testing of applicants at Hoffer, but that required time, effort, and cost to have our staff administer, monitor and score a myriad of off-the-shelf testing instruments. Now the process is streamlined. It's consistent. It's been validated. And best of all, we don't have to do it ourselves. It's a more controlled testing process, and it creates a true apples-to-apples comparison among applicants. I have no doubt that our cost-per-hire will drop dramatically simply due to lower administrative costs.”

Steve Dutner was recently hired at Hoffer Plastics as a molding technician. He had been unemployed for nearly 15 months when he heard about The 1,000 Worker Skills Initiative in Elgin. Equipped with years of supervisory experience and a bachelor's degree in management and leadership, Dutner was willing to do whatever it might take to stand out from the crowd of applicants. He tested at ECC and earned a Gold-level National Career Readiness Certificate. “The Certificate shows I'm still viable as an employee. It demonstrates that my skills are current. And it shows that I can adapt to a wide variety of work environments because the assessments show that I can think.” When he heard that Hoffer Plastics was hiring, he applied. Two interviews later, he was hired. Dutner believes that he made a good decision, and he believes Hoffer did as well. “They put me in a position that recognizes my education, my work history, and my skill levels. I am committed to showing this company they made a good investment in choosing me.”

Next Steps

“All the pieces are in place,” says Hayes. “We just need to build awareness and momentum.” Smith and Hayes continue to advocate for the value of The Certificate to employers and to individual job seekers. Hayes often visits the local Employment Security Office to tell unemployed individuals about The 1,000 Worker Skills Initiative. He asks them to consider taking advantage of the no-cost online training available at the Gail Borden Public Library and at both ECC campuses before taking the free WorkKeys assessments at ECC. He tells them what a Certificate can mean to their job hunting success and encourages them to give it a try.

As a direct beneficiary of the initiative, Dutner agrees. “Your resume isn't enough in this day and age and especially in this economy. Employers are bombarded by thousands of resumes. You need to do something that will make you stand out. The WorkKeys assessments are in-depth and diverse. They engage different thinking skills, and they show that you're capable of learning on the job. That's what employers really want to know.”

Malm is confident that having a skilled workforce will pay dividends in terms of economic development. “Half our growth is from foreign investment,” says Malm. “These firms are looking for highly skilled workers, and now we will have a way to document that Elgin is the place to be.”