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September 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 26

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Companies Need Qualified Workers, Qualified Workers Need Jobs


by Deborah D. Thornton



At every turn it seems that business owners are complaining that they can’t find qualified workers. The state and national unemployment and under-employment numbers, reaching as high as 25 percent for young people and minorities, clearly show that potential workers aren’t finding jobs. Further, many have stopped looking.


Much of the problem is the mismatch between available jobs and the skills required, and the skills (or lack thereof) held by both younger and older workers, in a wide variety of both high- and low-level fields.[1] The Skilled Iowa Initiative, started by Governor Terry Branstad in 2012, attempts to address both issues.


The National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC), developed by ACT (based in Iowa City) from its WorkKeys program, provides various levels of portable credentials to workers. Individuals can take skill tests in three areas – Applied Mathematics, Locating Information, and Reading for Information. After taking the tests and earning a Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Bronze-level certificate, the individual presents this certificate to a potential employer as documentation of their skills. The NCRC Plus adds additional tests in “soft” skills such as teamwork and leadership. The tests are offered to anyone who wishes to take them FREE of charge.


As of July 2013 over 6,500 Iowa businesses have signed up for the Skilled Iowa Initiative, agreeing to accept the NCRC results. Over 27,000 individuals have taken the tests, with almost 23,000 certificates having been earned.[2] Of these certificates, 130 are Platinum level. To achieve the Platinum Certificate a test taker must pass all three sections with a score of at least six of a possible seven. A Bronze certificate requires a minimum score of three on all sections.[3]


An important part of the program is that individuals receiving unemployment benefits can participate in the Skilled Iowa Initiative by taking the tests, signing up for and being placed in an internship, and receiving on-the-job-training and skill development – while still drawing benefits. Not all those participating in internships have earned permanent jobs with the internship organization, but the majority (55 percent) have.


The program is also being implemented at every high school in Iowa. For high school students, earning the certificate validates their educational achievements in a concrete, measurable way. A video developed by Iowa Workforce Development highlights the successes of 69 high school juniors at West Liberty High School in taking the NCRC tests.[4] It shows their enthusiasm and increased confidence in being able to enter the workforce, successfully land their first job, and do that job. Importantly, this certificate is useful not only for high school graduates immediately entering the workforce, but for those going on to college or technical schools, as documentation of their skills.


From the community side, a county or town can become a “Skilled Iowa Community,” and demonstrate worker readiness to potential new businesses. In order to become a “Skilled Iowa Community,” at least 10 percent of the current employers, representing at least 20 percent of the labor force, must join. Additionally, 5 percent of the current workers and 20 percent of the unemployed or transitioning workers must have earned a NCRC certificate at any of the four potential levels.[5] As of July 2013, Des Moines County is the first and only county to have met the four goals and become a “Skilled Iowa County.” Almost 13 percent of their employers are members, representing 50 percent of the workers. Of those workers, just over 6 percent have been awarded a NCRC certificate, and additionally almost 55 percent of the transitioning or unemployed potential workers have earned a certificate. Other communities actively working to earn the designation are Henry, Page, Ringgold, and Union Counties, and the cities of Sergeant Bluff and Sioux City, each meeting three of the four standards as of July 2013.[6]


Some counties, such as Johnson (Iowa City), have not yet fully embraced the Skilled Iowa Initiative. In Johnson County less than 4 percent of the businesses currently participate. Those businesses represent almost 40 percent of the workers, but very few of the workers in these businesses or others (only 0.44 percent) have taken the WorkKeys tests and received the NCRC certificate. More of the unemployed or “transitioning” Johnson County workers have taken the tests, just over 6 percent.[7]


So in Johnson County, the home of ACT and the University of Iowa, there is significantly more work to be done in becoming a certified Skilled Iowa Community and working to take full advantage of the programs available to promote the state and their community as a place where you can find qualified workers, whether employed, unemployed, or students, and businesses who support them. It is to be hoped that the Johnson County Supervisors, as well as City Council Members and local school board members, begin to recognize the benefits offered and work to encourage our businesses, workers, and students to take full advantage of an excellent program offered by the State of Iowa, and developed within their own community. This leadership can then extend to encouraging other counties and statewide businesses to participate.


In supporting this program, which encourages personal responsibility for job growth and advancement by documenting your skills and qualifications, the Public Interest Institute (PII) will be working with the Skilled Iowa program staff to present a public forum overview in Johnson County. While PII focuses on private-sector, limited-government initiatives, the Skilled Iowa Initiative utilizes a good teamwork approach between business and government, providing an important service to help our unemployed and under-employed workers and graduating high school and college students successfully advance into the workforce.


[1] “The Condition of Work Readiness in the United States,” 2012, p. 7, < >accessed on August 4, 2013.
[2] “Skilled Iowa Initiative Recognizes Anniversary Milestones,” July 30, 2013, <> accessed on July 31, 2013.
[3] “How to Earn the Certificate,” ACT, <> accessed on August 5, 2013.
[4] “West Liberty High School,” Skilled, July 2013, <> accessed on August 2, 2013.
[5] “Skilled Iowa Initiative Recognizes Anniversary Milestones.”
[6] “An Analysis of Employment and Skill Level Certification,” Iowa Workforce Development, 2013, p. 5, <> accessed on August 4, 2013.
[7] “Johnson County Skilled Iowa Metrics,” Iowa Workforce Development, August 1, 2013, received from Teresa Wahlert, Director, Iowa Workforce Development, August 5, 2013, via e-mail:


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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