e-Texas e-Texassmaller smarter faster governmentDecember, 2000
Carole Keeton Rylander
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Recommendations of the Texas Comptroller

Chapter 7: Workforce

Require Employability

Assessments for Public Assistance Recipients


Only 10 percent of Texas’ employers use the publicly-funded services offered by the Texas Workforce Commission and local workforce development boards. Employers who do use the system often find that the workers referred to them lack basic work skills.[1] Workforce boards could increase employers’ participation by determining the skills employers need and focusing their training offerings on those skills. “Work Keys” is an instrument that assesses job seekers’ skills and verifies matches between those skills and employer needs. It also provides information on whether or not job seekers’ job skills are improved by the training. Texas’ career development centers should adopt and offer a reliable and valid job skills assessment instrument such as Work Keys as part of their services to job seekers and employers.


While there is no commonly-accepted definition of an “employability assessment,” most definitions agree on a few points. Such assessments should determine whether a candidate has the general skills appropriate to the position for which he or she is applying, including math, reading, writing, and technology skills. Employers also want to know if the candidate has basic workplace competencies, a good work ethic, and the ability to follow directions and work well with others. Definitions of “employability” may vary between specific jobs and occupations. A software company, for example, will have a different set of “employability” criteria than a restaurant.

Over the last 10 years, many authorities across the US have attempted to develop employability criteria; a number of companies have developed assessments for their own activities. Employability assessments have become a high-profile issue for several reasons. Many businesses complain of a lack of qualified workers, and rapidly changing economic conditions means they need to identify potential employees quickly and efficiently. By the same token, in the future many more workers are likely to function as free agents, moving from employer to employer as changing markets dictate, and they will need reliable ways to quantify their skills and successfully market themselves to potential employers. In addition, if welfare reforms are to succeed, welfare recipients must be placed in appropriate jobs.

In various focus groups and interviews, employers have consistently identified a need for some sort of employability assessment that can be given to job candidates before they are interviewed.

Assessments Used in Texas Workforce System

Texas’ career development centers administer the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) to Texas public assistance recipients who may have problems with literacy.[2] TABE measures four levels of vocabulary, reading comprehension, language mechanics, language expression, spelling, mathematical calculation, and mathematical concepts and application. Career development centers also use another assessment, the Wide Range Achievement Test—Expanded Edition (WRAT), to measure similar factors. Neither TABE nor WRAT, however, is designed to profile jobs or assess candidates’ fitness for a particular occupation.

Several Texas career development centers use another assessment, Career Mapper, a product distributed by Profiles International, Inc. Career Mapper contains sections addressing abilities, interests, personality, and social desirability. The results then are compared to 200 careers to show the degree of compatibility or job fit. One career center in Midland purchases the instrument for $75 per test.[3]

Texas’ workforce development centers use several other common assessments, but none provides credentials that an applicant can present to an employer to establish his or her skill level.

Work Keys

ACT, the nonprofit organization that created the American College Testing program in the late 1950s, developed Work Keys in the 1990s. It is a criterion-referenced assessment test that looks at a person’s employability skills and compares them to the skill requirements of specific occupations.[4] This assessment creates skill scales in three areas:

  1. communications (listening, reading for information, writing);
  2. problem-solving (applied mathematics, applied technology, research, and observational skills); and,
  3. interpersonal skills (teamwork).

Clearly, different occupations have different skill requirements. Work Keys can be used by an employer to profile the skill requirements for any job they need to fill. Potential candidates then are tested to see if they match that profile. Employers also can use the profile to work with colleges and high schools to ensure the continuing availability of skilled workers in their areas. Moreover, the test can provide job-seekers with information on areas in which their present skills may need improvement. ACT has profiled more than 3,000 jobs with Work Keys.[5]

In Texas, 27 Work Keys service centers administer the assessments for area businesses and organizations and provide job profiling services.[6] Austin Community College (ACC) sponsors Austin’s Work Keys Service Center. ACC used to charge companies $2,500 per job profile but recently began providing the service for free. The college has aligned 15 of its programs, such as Culinary Arts, Accounting Technician, and Electronics, with Work Keys profiles. The skills taught then can be assessed with Work Keys tests. Successful students leave these programs with Work Keys credentials that certify to employers that they possess the skills required for the job.[7]

The Texas Education Agency is conducting a study, as recommended by the education commissioner’s Task Force on Accountability in Adult Education, to determine the correlation between TABE and Work Keys. Ultimately, TABE may be used for baseline academic assessments, but Work Keys or a similar instrument would still be needed for progress and employability assessments.[8]

Local Practices

Some of Texas’ workforce development boards offer Work Keys assessments of job candidates if the employers request and pay for the test. For example, Cryovac, a major employer in North Texas, contracted with a local board to profile several of its jobs with Work Keys. The company pays about $8 per assessment for job candidates sent to them by the local workforce board. While the board already administers the TABE to clients who qualify for welfare benefits, the TABE does not provide the sort of specific skills information required by Cryovac.[9] Brazos Valley workforce development centers also provide Work Keys assessments to employers at a cost of $15 per session (regardless of the number of tests), and $5 per test to score each assessment.[10] Port Arthur’s Texas Workforce Center is also a Work Keys Service Center. It and the Golden Crescent Workforce Centers are planning to partner with a local college to administer the Work Keys so they “can assess and match to local employer needs at a more precise level.”[11]

Employer Response to Work Keys

According to ACT, the following companies all use Work Keys:

Allied Signal
Bristol-Myers Squibb
Coors Brewing Co.
Gillette/Oral-B Laboratories
Ocean Spray Cranberries
Polaris Industries
Procter & Gamble
Rutgers University
State of California
Syracuse University[12]

Businesses report that the benefits of Work Keys include improved employee selection and advancement procedures, reduced overtime, reduced turnover, increased productivity, fewer legal challenges over hiring processes, and higher employee morale. While ACT does not provide quantitative proof of these benefits, it does provide examples of companies that have benefited from Work Keys.

One example is Creative Extruded Products, an automotive parts manufacturer located in Tipp City, Ohio. The local Miami Valley Career Technology Center profiled some of the company’s newly created positions, tested all employees, and developed training curricula once they found (through Work Keys testing) that about 25 percent of the employees required retraining. The results were dramatic: the company reduced its average employee training time from six to two months, reduced overtime hours by 95 percent, and cut turnover from 33 percent to 5 percent.[13]


Local career development centers should administer job skill assessments for public assistance recipients and other clients before referring candidates for interviews or job placements.

A job skill assessment instrument, such as Work Keys, should be administered to public assistance recipients and other appropriate clients both as a credential for the clients, and as a strategy to better meet the recruitment needs of employers.

Local career development centers either could become Work Key Service Centers or partner with service centers in their areas. Work Keys could replace other assessments used for testing job applicants. Career centers should make the Work Keys assessment available to all other clients on request, and charge a fee to recover costs if an employer is not paying for the assessment. Local workforce boards could use the data collected from the Work Keys assessments to measure the effectiveness of their training providers. If other instruments are proven to be equally effective, they could be used in lieu of Work Keys.

Fiscal Impact

The cost of employability testing is minimal. If workforce centers cannot absorb the cost of the assessment, they should charge businesses a fee for testing potential job candidates. This fee should eliminate any cost to the state.

[1] Texas Workforce Commission, Texas Workforce Commission Marketing Strategy: Volume One, by Angelou Economic Advisors Inc. (Austin, Texas, 1999), p. 13.

[2] Texas Workforce Commission, Choices Program Guidelines (Austin, Texas), p. 16. (http://www.twc.state.tx.us/welref/choicesguidelines.pdf). (Internet document.)

[3] Telephone interview with W.C. Wilson, Jr., manager, One-Stop Center, Midland, Texas, July 27, 2000.

[4] Interview with Karen Pennell, director for Post Secondary Assessment and Business Services, ACT, Austin, Texas, November 10, 2000.

[5] Interview with Karen Pennell, director for Post Secondary Assessment and Business Services, ACT, Austin, Texas, November 22, 1999.

[6] ACT, “Work Keys Service Centers” (http://www.act.org/workkeys/centers.html). (Internet document.)

[7] Telephone interview with Teresa Moore, curriculum development specialist and Work Keys profiler, Austin Community College, Austin, Texas, August 3, 2000.

[8] Texas Education Agency, Texas State Plan for Adult Education and Family Literacy, July 1, 1999 through June 30, 2004 (Austin, Texas, April 12, 1999), pp. 25-26.

[9] Telephone interview with Nita Keck, director of Workforce Development, Workforce Development Center of North Texas, Wichita Falls, Texas, June 23, 2000.

[10] Telephone interview with Steve McGuire, assessment specialist, Brazos Valley Workforce Development Centers, Bryan, Texas, July 28, 2000.

[11] E-mail communication from Lisa Spadoni, CMS/training coordinator, Golden Crescent Workforce Development Board, Victoria, Texas, August 2, 2000.

[12] (http://www.act.org/workkeys/atwork/case5.html) (Internet document.)

[13] ACT, “Case Study: Reducing Turnover and Overtime” (http://www.act.org/workkeys/atwork/case5.html). (Internet document.)

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Austin, Texas

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