Jenna Cohen is the workforce product manager at ACT. ACT’s mission is to help people achieve education and workplace success. It serves millions of people around the world with learning resources, assessments, research, and credentials to help them succeed from elementary school throughout their careers.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Celisa Steele talks with Jenna about ACT’s WorkKeys products, National Career Readiness Certificate, and Work Ready Communities program. They discuss the importance of listening to the market and using data and research to truly understand needs and solve real problems. Jenna also shares how the pandemic has created opportunities around credentials, remote work, and an overall emphasis on adapting to future disruptions.
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[00:00] – Intro
[02:06] – Would you tell us about ACT and your role there?
ACT is a mission-driven nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Their North Star is to fight for fairness and education and create a world where everyone can discover and fulfill their potential. ACT wants to help people achieve education and workforce success.
As the workforce product manager, Jenna oversees the visioning work, product improvements, and day-to-day operations, including everything from content creation to interacting with businesses, community colleges, and others to use their assessments and curriculum in the workforce.
WorkKeys and the National Career Readiness Certificate
WorkKeys and the the National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) deal with career readiness. The ACT NCRC is made up of three assessments: Graphic Literacy, Applied Mathematics, and Workplace Documents. Each is about 55 minutes long, and examinees can earn a Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum designation. The assessments provide information about whether an examinee is prepared with the foundational skills.
We know that a component of success isn’t just going to that four-year institution and getting a degree because that doesn’t always lead to a job, and it doesn’t always mean that you are ready and have those foundational skills it takes to be successful in the workplace, those job-readiness skills.Jenna Cohen
[05:45] – Many competencies underlie WorkKeys and the assessments. How does ACT approach establishing and maintaining those competencies?
Once you earn an NCRC, you have it for life, but you can retest as many times as you’d like to reach different levels (Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum), and the certificate is connected to many employers, often through ACT’s Work Ready Communities. The different levels of the NCRC are frequently tied to different jobs available at ACT’s workplace partners. For example, a Bronze might qualify a candidate for an entry-level position.
[07:02] – How do employers help shape and inform ACT’s competencies and workforce development offerings?
ACT’s research team and industrial-organizational psychologists work with employers profile jobs and define the skills needed for career readiness. After the job-profiling is complete, ACT may recommend the NCRC and the three WorkKey assessments, if they are a good fit. ACT triangulates its different services and products to meet organizational needs and solve problems.
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The Secret to Working Well with Employers
[09:25] – What are the secret ingredients that go into working well with employers?
You have to be a good listener and peel the onion back to understand the different layers of a problem and what the needs are. It’s not just putting out a blanket product or service for everyone and all situations. Instead, dig deep to be a problem-solver and thought-partner with the organizations you work with.
The other secret ingredient is relationship-building and discovering the levers of change.
Trends and the Evolving Role of Credentials
[11:01] – Are you seeing the role of credentials change as the global economy and the nature of work evolve? Are there any recent shifts or trends that you want to call out?
ACT’s credentialing department is working very closely with the WorkKeys products to identify market trends and see where it can help solve different problems. ACT has found that more and more states and counties are leaning into the credentialing world. ACT is thinking about the different skills attached to the NCRC (Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum) and how those may equate to different credentials.
First and foremost, ACT is a research company, so it is gathering data to ensure that, should it add a new product idea, the product really meets market needs. Customer voice and market research data are essential parts of ACT’s work.
[12:34] – Do you have thoughts on microcredentials, stackable credentials, or digital badges?
COVID has created unique opportunities in the market.
[F]our-year degrees aren’t the bee’s knees—and I’m not throwing any shade. I think that education is very important. Education is what makes our lives rich. But I think that folks are learning that some of these stackable credentials, some of these microskills, some of these different, alternative means of showing what you can do and maybe where you have room for growth are really valuable to employers.Jenna Cohen
Credentials do a nice job of showing the specific skills that new employees need, and they can be used as leverage to help build your organization.
COVID’s Impact on ACT
[14:04] – How has COVID impacted the work ACT does and the work of those it serves?
The test centers ACT uses to offer its assessments are still working on opening up since the start of the pandemic. ACT is currently in a proof of concept to understand the risks and benefits of offering remote proctoring, so an examinee can take a WorkKeys assessments from a remote location (e.g., home), and the proctor is on their computer virtually.
Since the pandemic, people have gotten used to working where they want and when they want. Remote work is starting to be a benefit offered as a part of an employment package. ACT is always listening to the market and hearing what employers are offering, and so ACT wants to ride the coattails of that remote work benefit offering. That’s why ACT is thinking about the different features it can offer to continue to modernize its products to meet market needs.
Anything around convenience and flexibility is going to be something likely to stick around post-pandemic. ACT is hearing employers flex and pivot to provide that convenience and flexibility. WorkKeys have to continue to follow suit for ACT to be a good partner.
ACT’s Role in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
[18:27] – ACT is committed to fighting for fairness in education and creating a world where everyone can discover and fulfill their potential. How does ACT see its role in diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Equity guides in all ACT does. ACT is always conducting robust research on urgent challenges in education. ACT engages local states and national leaders who are as passionate about reinventing the systems that empower everyone to compete, succeed, and thrive.
Advice for Learning Businesses
[20:02] – What lessons learned or advice do you have that you would share with other organizations in the business of continuing education, professional development, and lifelong learning?
Jenna says she is a lifelong learner first and foremost. No matter where you are in your career you need to understand that the market always changes, and you have to be flexible. The only thing constant in life is change, and you have to be ready to pivot, listen, and learn.
I think that it’s okay to change your mind when presented with new compelling data, which is something that I think that a lot of our society has struggled with, that they make their mind up, and that’s their opinion, and that’s their stance. And I think that one of the real successes and the piece of advice that I would give folks in the education and the workforce market is follow the data, listen to the market, and use that to drive your decisions. And if the data’s different than when you originally took your stance or had an opinion, use that to shape your new one.Jenna Cohen
Data is important to ensure that you’re meeting a true need and not solving a problem that doesn’t exist anymore. Jenna believes many organizations aren’t solving the right problems anymore. When COVID hit, none of us were prepared, and we still don’t know what’s coming in the future. You have to be ready to act. You can’t provide a baked solution if you don’t have the data to provide a baked solution, but you may still need to take action.
Be inquisitive, be a lifelong learner, and be ready to change. Those three components will ensure that you’re solving actual problems and not problems that have already passed.
[22:48] – Is there any else that comes to mind that we haven’t had a chance to talk about yet?
Jenna emphasizes how important it is to understand the complexity of the workforce ecosystem. Organizations often have to support large generational gaps and varying skills and abilities. Establishing work-ready and career-ready skills is a great starting spot. It can help fill entry-level positions throughout an organization.
ACT’s Work Ready Communities program is a good approach to the complex workforce ecosystem. ACT partners with businesses and local, state, and national leaders who are all passionate about growing the workforce and providing tools and resources for a robust economy. That kind of partnership can be magical and create huge opportunity in the pipeline.
[24:30] – Wrap-up
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