Workers find the keys to getting ahead

Samantha Sawyer is a mechanic at Tyco Electronics in Rock Hill. WorkKeys, a skills-assessment program through Rock Hill Adult Education, helped her get a promotion.
Samantha Sawyer is a mechanic at Tyco Electronics in Rock Hill. WorkKeys, a skills-assessment program through Rock Hill Adult Education, helped her get a promotion.

Ordinarily Samantha Sawyer, a 41-year-old woman who has worked for Tyco Electronics for 14 years, would have needed a two-year degree to get promoted to the job she now has as a mechanic.

But Tyco recently started using WorkKeys, a skills-assessment program.

So when Sawyer applied for the promotion last year, her boss sent her to Rock Hill Adult Education to take the WorkKeys assessment. She got a good score and got the job, no degree necessary.

"It gave me an opportunity to go up the ladder at work a little bit and get a higher-paying job without having to go to two years of school," Sawyer said.

Sawyer was one of hundreds of people who have benefited from a $281,000 grant from the S.C. Department of Commerce awarded to Rock Hill Adult Education to promote the use of WorkKeys in York and Chester counties.

The grant allows people like Sawyer to take the assessment for free. It also has been used to promote WorkKeys in the school districts' technology centers -- where more than 350 students already have been tested -- the department of corrections, OneStops and the Family Literacy Center, among other places.

The idea behind WorkKeys is to establish a common language among educators, job applicants, businesses and hiring managers. Employers can look at an applicant's scores and know exactly what skills they can expect that person to have.

Those skills go hand-in-hand with what Rock Hill Adult Education already was doing -- preparing people to receive their GED or high school diploma.

"The beauty of WorkKeys is that it's written in a work-related format," said Sandy Andrews, director of Rock Hill Adult Education.

Jobs are first profiled to see what skills a person would need for the position. The job profile correlates to a score on the assessment. When a student takes the WorkKeys assessment, they can instantly tell if they already have the score they need to get a particular job or if they need some remediation first.

That's where adult education comes in.

WorkKeys is testing people on reading, math and locating information. That's very similar to the subject matter on the GED exam.

So when a job seeker also doesn't have a high school diploma, they can sign up for a GED prep course where they also will learn the skills they need to improve their WorkKeys scores. Every local student who has attained gold-level certification, the highest level, also has passed their GED exam.

When someone finishes WorkKeys, they get a career readiness certificate they can show employers. Gov. Mark Sanford launched the Career Readiness Certificate Initiative last year, something that already was used in many other states.

"One thing that we're seeing is that it's sort of a mindset that a lot of people have had over the years, especially these people who lost their jobs, that they didn't need to learn anything new," said Lori Grant, lead teacher for Adult Education. "And with WorkKeys this helps emphasize that there is a whole other world of knowledge out there that you've got to have if you want to move forward in this job market.

"It's brought an awareness to what we need to do in South Carolina to improve our work force while at the same time making sure they have a high school credential."

Rock Hill Adult Education's grant will run out at the end of the year. A similar grant at York Technical College will end June 30. Officials at both places hope they will be able to secure more money and keep providing the same programs.

In the meantime, Rock Hill's Adult Education, which serves about 1,000 people a year, has hired a follow-up coordinator to contact the people who came through the program to find out what they are doing now.

"We want to know what people are doing with the career readiness certificate," Andrews said.

"They gave a goal when they got here, and we need to know if they met their goal and did we help them."