Tennessee Technology Centers Award National Career Readiness Certificates to Program Graduates

The Organization

Tennessee Technology Centers

The Challenge

Enhance workplace skills of graduates while they complete their occupational training and award a widely recognized skills credential in addition to a program diploma or certificate

The Solution

  • Implement a workplace skills training curriculum and administer WorkKeys® assessments on site as part of a required Technology Foundations "co-requisite"
  • Issue National Career Readiness Certificates to graduates

The Results

  • Nearly 6,000 Technology Center students hold a National Career Readiness Certificate
  • 87% of Certificates awarded are Gold or Silver
  • Employers, educators, and students across the state recognize the value of The Certificate

Overview

The 27 Tennessee Technology Centers (TTC) are intended to be the state's premier providers of workforce development. Along with six universities and 13 community colleges, the Centers are governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents. The more than 800 TTC faculty and staff members focus on state-of-the-art technical training for workers. The certificate and diploma programs offered on TTC campuses help job seekers train for a career and help business and industry build a skilled workforce. The system was planned so that no Tennessean is farther than about 50 miles from a TTC campus. More than 70 occupational programs are offered on TTC campuses across the state. A diploma or certificate is awarded to graduates of each program. The selection of available programs at each Center is based on local industry demands. Program instructors come from the relevant occupation. For example, the seven-week program in truck driving is taught by a licensed, experienced truck driver; the 22-month program in automotive technology is led by seasoned, certified mechanics.

TTC students don't sign up for specific classes; they select a program. Full-time students are expected to commit a minimum of 30 hours per week at the Center until they graduate. And attendance is required—just as it will be on the job. Most programs are open entry, open exit and competency based, providing maximum flexibility for students. The average age of a TTC student is 32. TTC programs predominantly serve displaced workers interested in retraining for a new occupation. "On any given day, we have around 30,000 students on TTC campuses," says Chelle Travis, assistant vice chancellor for instruction. "One-third are full-time, one-third are part-time, and the remainder are employees of local business and industry receiving supplemental training for their current position." In the words of center director Carol Puryear of TTC Murfreesboro, "We help people find a job, but more than that, we change lives. We teach people that life is not over when someone hands you a pink slip." The TTC model is working well for Tennesseans—the average completion rate is 75% and the average placement rate is an impressive 83%. Graduates must be employed in their field of study to count in the placement statistic.

The Role of Assessments

As students enroll in a TTC program, one of the first things they do is go to the Technology Foundations classroom on the TTC campus and take an online assessment to measure their current foundational workplace skills. TTC uses a readiness assessment offered by KeyTrain®, an ACT-approved content publisher supporting WorkKeys and the National Career Readiness Certificate.

Travis explains the process: "The pre-assessment lets us know the beginning skill levels of each student. Students spend several hours each week in the Technology Foundations classroom as a required 'co-requisite' of their selected program, in addition to their 30-hour time commitment to their program. They work through KeyTrain's Web-based training curriculum until they successfully reach Level 5. At that point, they take the readiness assessment again to confirm their competency before taking the WorkKeys exams. All 27 campuses are ACT WorkKeys Solutions Providers, so proctored testing takes place right in the Technology Foundations lab. "Our goal is to have every graduate earn a Silver-level National Career Readiness Certificate," says Travis. "To date, we've done very well. Of the nearly 6,000 students receiving Certificates, 30 percent earned Gold, 57 percent earned Silver, and 13 percent earned Bronze."

Sally Bibb, a Technology Foundations instructor at the TTC Covington campus, reports that students voluntarily continue to work through the training curriculum and retest even after earning a Silver-level Certificate. "To me, that shows they see the value." Tracy Whitehead, Bibb's counterpart at the Hohenwald campus, says that if her students don't receive their Certificate in the two-week period they were promised, "they are in my lab asking for them. This is no longer a 'have-to' requirement for these students; it has become a 'want-to' activity. That's a great indication of perceived value." And at TTC Dickson, Technology Foundations instructor Sarah Durham has created a Certificate Wall of Fame filled with pictures of proud, smiling students holding their newly minted National Career Readiness Certificates.

Travis reports that another measure of perceived value is the number of requests for replacement Certificates if the original becomes damaged. "Students have to pay $15 for the replacement. Given the typical income level of TTC students, that's not an insignificant amount. If you only have $20 a week for gas and food, a $15 replacement Certificate must have value if you're willing to purchase a new one."

Funding

About two years ago, the Tennessee governor's office began an initiative through the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to offer WorkKeys testing and a Career Readiness Certificate at all Career Centers and on all TTC campuses across the state. Statewide funding has made it possible to offer the training curriculum, the testing, the Certificates, and one free retest of each WorkKeys skill assessment to any citizen at no charge.

Initially, a State of Tennessee Career Readiness Certificate based on ACT's WorkKeys assessments and certification principles was offered. Today, the state has adopted the National Career Readiness Certificate. Each credential carries a Certificate number registered in ACT's database and is verifiable online. ACT prints the Certificates and sends them to the testing center where the assessments were taken.

"Adopting the National Career Readiness Certificate is a significant advancement for Tennessee employers and job seekers," said Wil Hammond, program manager at the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development in Nashville. "ACT handles all the logistics, protecting the integrity of the program and ensuring that each Certificate is available for verification by prospective employers. And the NCRC is widely recognized, respected, and truly portable across the state and the nation."

Momentum

Prior to this funding initiative, many of the state's Career Centers had been conducting WorkKeys testing and many TTC campuses had offered the curriculum training to prepare for testing. Travis reports that once this funding was in place, the statewide momentum really began to grow. "This is truly an industry-based credential—something employers can really understand. Now educators and employers can speak the same language, and our students really see the value when they apply for a position and the employer won't even hand them an application until they can produce a registered National Career Readiness Certificate."

Tennessee Technology Centers vice chancellor James King states, "We see it as another tool in our students' toolboxes. With the economy the way it is, we need to arm our students with as many tools as we can to show potential employers their proficiency levels. A diploma or certificate from their TTC program helps; a license or occupational certification helps; and a National Career Readiness Certificate is a bonus that gives the employer greater confidence in the individuals they hire."

James Dixon, center director at TTC Pulaski, agrees. "The National Career Readiness Certificate documents a level of competency to an employer. The skills measured by the assessments are the skills important to building a quality work team." One Pulaski employer Dixon points to as an example is Clarage, a manufacturer of custom industrial centrifugal fans, exhausters, and ventilators. Clarage looks to TTC Pulaski when they require welders; in fact, 16 of the 24 full-time welders at Clarage are TTC graduates. "Because of companies like this, area citizens can find good employment opportunities right here at home," Dixon adds.

Graduate and Employer Surveys

The TTC system uses an extensive survey procedure to follow their graduates and assess the success of their training programs. Exit interviews are conducted with program graduates, and surveys are sent to alumni. Responses are then confirmed by sending employer surveys asking for feedback on the skills of the TTC graduates they hire. Travis indicates that employers have reported a 98% satisfaction rate, indicating that TTC graduates are meeting or exceeding expectations. Satisfaction rates from graduates are similar: 97% indicate they were educationally prepared for their job.

Staying Current

Every program at every TTC campus has an advisory committee to help guide the curriculum and ensure that graduates are adequately prepared to enter employment in that field. Many of the committee members are local employers from that program's occupational area. Travis indicates that if professional certifications exist in an occupational area, instructors are expected to hold those certifications or licenses and keep them current. Instructors spend time at local businesses, refreshing their knowledge of current technology in use, as well as knowledge of the tasks and skills needed to be successful.

A Model for the Nation

The innovative structure of TTC programs continues to gain national attention. A June 2010 webinar sponsored by the New America Foundation, as well as numerous national publications, featured the simplicity and intensity of TTC programs as a model for other educational institutions. Consistent with their mission to provide premier workforce development training that is affordable and accessible, TTC programs aim to get people back to work in an occupation that will sustain them and their families. Travis states that the average length of a TTC program is 12 to 18 months. "That's a significant investment of time and effort, but that's what we're here for—to help people enter or re-enter the workforce. We need to give every graduate every opportunity to find employment and succeed. The National Career Readiness Certificate is just one more advantage we can give them to help them realize a brighter future."

"We help people find a job, but more than that, we change lives. We teach people that life is not over when someone hands you a pink slip." Carol Puryear, center director, Tennessee Technology Center, Murfreesboro
"This is no longer a 'have-to' requirement for these students; it has become a 'want-to' activity. That's a great indication of perceived value." Tracy Whitehead, instructor, Tennessee Technology Center, Hohenwald
"We see it as another tool in our students' toolboxes. With the economy the way it is, we need to arm our students with as many tools as we can to show potential employers their proficiency levels. A diploma or certificate from their TTC program helps; a license or occupational certification helps; and a National Career Readiness Certificate is a bonus that gives the employer greater confidence in the individuals they hire." James King, vice chancellor, Tennessee Technology Centers