March 9, 2019 10:03:13 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
At 8:25 Thursday morning, test proctor Terry Logan escorted eight people from the lobby at East Mississippi Community College to a classroom equipped with desktop computers, a calculator and pencil and paper.
I was clearly the oldest of the eight people taking the WorkKeys test, but that wasn't the only thing that distinguished me from the others.
I was taking the test to take it.
The others, ranging from 21-year-old Jarvis Jackson to 30-year-old Kendall Minor, were taking the test to "make it."
Although WorkKeys is not required as part of the job application, Jackson hoped the test would bolster his chances of landing a position at PACCAR. Minor needed to pass the test to qualify for EMCC's welding program.
Brandi Kelly, 25, of Columbus, needed to pass the test to qualify for EMCC's medical billing program.
For each, Thursday was the culmination of 10 or more hours of online practice tests to which those who sign up for the WorkKeys have access.
There in the quiet of the classroom, we listened as Logan explained how to access the test questions through passwords.
Then, we began the test.
Developed by the ACT company, the WorkKeys test is the career-track equivalent of the ACT, which is used to assess college preparedness.
For 12 years now, EMCC has been offering these tests.
"When we started our manufacturing skills classes back in 2006 and 2007, we knew we wanted to use WorkKeys," said Jim Huerkamp, EMCC's project manager for skills development. "We weren't exactly sure how we wanted to use it at first, but over the years, it's turned out to be a valuable tool to assess workplace skills."
Since 2007, Huerkamp said EMCC has given the test to more than 14,000 people. Some local companies, such as Tronox and Yokohama Tire Corporation, require the test as part of the job applications. Almost all the others consider it a preferred part of the application process. WorkKeys is also required of those who -- like Minor and Kelly -- plan to enroll in any of EMCC's workforce training programs.
The test is divided into three sections -- applied math, workplace documents and graphic literacy. Each section has 38 questions and test-takers are given 55 minutes to complete each section.
From the first question of the first section until the last question of the last section, it's clear everything is devoted to real-life work situations.
For example, math questions are presented as word problems related to a job situation. They range from the simplest math to conversions to and from the metric system.
The workplace documents section requires the test-taker to glean from the material essential facts related to specific questions. In the graphics literacy section, test-takers must be able to analyze a wide range of different types of graphics to answer questions.
Tests are graded on four levels -- bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Silver is considered a passing grade.
The scoring system, Huerkamp said, is designed to determine what jobs a test-taker can be expected to perform.
"If you score at a bronze level, you're going to be great at about 15 percent of the jobs," Huerkamp said. "At silver, you should be able to perform about 65 percent of the jobs. At gold, you're capable of handing 80 to 85 percent of the jobs. If you get a platinum, you can probably knock it out of the park in just about any job."
Full disclosure: I didn't knock it out of the park.
Upon completing my tests, Logan stepped outside the classroom, briefly explaining my test results.
"You got pretty close to platinum," she said.
The range of possible scores are 65 to 90.
In applied math, I scored an 82 -- metric conversions were my undoing. I also scored an 82 in graphics literacy, which might have been better if I paid attention to the time limit. Of the three sections, it was the one section that I failed to complete all the questions (answering 35 of 38).
I scored the highest -- an 87 -- in workplace documents.
Those scores qualified me for gold status in all three sections.
Logan said I could expect to receive my WorkKeys certificate in about a week, although the certificate can be downloaded and printed from the ACT website 48 hours after taking the test for anyone who needs them sooner.
Jackson, the third to finish the test, said he got what he came for.
"I needed a silver and was able to get it," said the Columbus native. "Some of the test was hard, but I had used the practice test and felt pretty good about it. Now, the next step is applying at PACCAR.
"I'm happy to get this," he added. "It will open the door, I hope."
For Kelly, the results were mixed.
She got the silver she needed in workplace documents and graphics literacy, but fell just short in applied math.
"I'm a little disappointed, but not too much," said Kelly, who currently works as a waitress. "I knew the math part was going to be hard. Math has always been hard for me."
For those who, like Kelly, fall short, EMCC provides chances to retake the test -- or individual sections of the test. Huerkamp said EMCC can also provide tutoring for would-be test-takers.
The test costs $50, but students can re-take a section at the cost of $20.
"Our goal is to get everyone who takes the test where they need to be," Huerkamp said.
Tests are conducted twice a week at EMCC and at least once a month on a Saturday, based on demand. High school students throughout the Golden Triangle also take the test.
In addition, some companies such as PACCAR use a different version of the WorkKeys test to assess employees for promotions or new assignments.
Minor emerged from his short conversation with Logan clearly pleased.
"I got the score I needed," the Starkville native said. "Now, I can move on to the next step."
Minor has previously attended EMCC to study business, but it wasn't a good fit. He currently sells insurance, but now that he's passed the WorkKeys test he's qualified to pursue a career change.
"I hope to get into the welding program here," he said. "It starts April 6, so I'm all set. Hopefully, it will be the first step to a career with better pay and more stability."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]