When a grant expires, it may be a sign that it has failed to achieve its goal or is no longer relevant. But in the best cases, grants expire because they have achieved their goal.
That’s why Macaulay Whitaker is talking about….bicycles? Yes, bicycles.
Whitaker, Chief Operating Officer for the Golden Triangle Development LINK, says the LINK grant that funded WorkKeys testing at area high schools, was a lot like the training wheels used to teach children how to ride a bike.
The initial grant was for five years, providing $5,000 to each high school that would provide juniors and seniors. The grant, which began in 2015, was extended another year because of COVID-19 and other factors, but expires this year.
“The training wheels are coming off,” she said.
WorkKeys is owned by the American College Test, a nonprofit educational organization that developed the ACT to measure student readiness for college. ACT founded WorkKeys in 2001 to measure applied skills commonly used in the workplace. Although it is a complement to ACT rather than an alternative, the nature of the WorkKeys test has led to it being used to assess workplace readiness for students who may not be on a college track.
When The Golden Triangle Development LINK was pursuing certification as a Work Ready Community as part of its economic development efforts, it focused on incorporating the existing WorkKeys program at East Mississippi Community College’s workforce development program with local business and industries.
“What we discovered was the high schools were the missing component,” Whitaker said. “So in 2015, we started a grant program for $5,000 for any school in our area that wanted to provide WorkKeys testing.”
The grants covered the $50 charge for the testing, enough for 100 students at each school.
“The goal of the (grant) program was to get the high schools started and then track what was happening in the Legislature and Department of Education.”
In 2019, the Legislature appropriated $1 million for WorkKeys at high schools in the state. This year, said Lenora Hogan, Director of Starkville High School’s Millsaps Career and Technology Center, WorkKeys will be incorporated into the state’s accountability standards, making it available at all high schools through state funding.
The LINK’s WorkKeys grant arrived at the same time Hogan took over as Millsaps director. While she immediately saw the potential of the program, she confesses selling the idea to some people in the community was more difficult.
“There was some misunderstanding at first,” Hogan said. “The first year, I made (WorkKeys) a requirement for the seniors, some parents were calling and asking why their kids, who were going to college, were having to take this test for people going into factory work. I had to explain to them that WorkKeys was something that was for every kid. I told them that if their kid wanted to be an engineer and was looking for an internship, that WorkKeys certification would help them get better internships.I want my students to have every certification they can get. WorkKeys are as much for college-bound kids as anyone. It’s a real value.”
Courtney Tayor, director of EMCC’s Communiveristy said bringing WorkKeys to high schools has been a real boost.
“I think it’s been very important,” Taylor said.” It allows for a couple of things. First, it’s a separate measure than the ACT in giving high school students a frame of reference as to where they stand in terms of being ready for the workforce. On our end, it gives us a lot of good data about where students’ needs are coming into our program.Do the scores on the math section show a little more work is needed there? Things like that. It really helps us identify and tailor our programs to meet areas of need.”
Whitaker said the success of the LINKS’ WorkKeys grant program is an example of the teamwork applied to enhance the Golden Triangle’s reputation in the competitive world of economic development.
“I think the Work Ready certification demonstrated something we here in the Golden Triangle are particularly good at: Teamwork around an initiative,” Whitaker said. “We had to have everybody involved to make it work: The LINK, EMCC, community leaders, county and city government and the high schools. Establishing WorkKeys as a tool at every level was a big part of that.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]