Certificate programs are currently the fastest-growing segment of higher education in the United States. Approximately 1 million were awarded in 2010, up from 300,000 in 1994. Last year, the number of students who earned one-to-two-year certificates jumped by 56 percent, compared with a 15-percent increase in the number of bachelor’s degrees and a 25-percent rise in associate degrees.
While there are a number of industry-specific certifications that validate the skills and competencies of workers, the National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) stands out as a credential that relies on standardized assessments that measure workplace skills critical to success in occupations across all sectors of the economy.
ACT, Inc., which administers the NCRC, is a not-for-profit organization perhaps best known for producing the ACT standardized test on college readiness for high school students. However, the Iowa-based organization also provides more than 100 other assessment, research, information, and program management services for education and workforce development.
“The ACT National Career Readiness Certificate is a professional credential, which is quite different from a certificate awarded for completing an educational or training experience,” said ACT spokesperson Katie Wacker.
Launched in 2006, the NCRC complements traditional credentials like high school diplomas and community college degrees. Awarded at four levels, the certificate emphasizes competence in a specific set of skills and technical knowledge that are directly applicable to job performance and career advancement.
Earning an NCRC requires successful performance on three standardized tests called WorkKeys, which measure real-world skills that employers believe are critical to job success.
“The NCRC credential certifies skills that are linked to occupational success, not to academic achievement, making it accessible and meaningful to more American workers,” Wacker told IMT Career Journal.
The NCRC demonstrates achievement and a certain level of workplace employability skills in three key areas:
- Applying mathematical reasoning to work-related problems.
- Using information from such materials as diagrams, floor plans, tables, forms, graphs, and charts.
- Comprehending work-related reading materials that range from memos and bulletins to policy manuals and regulations.
More than 1 million individuals each year take these three standardized assessments, making the NCRC the most widely used employability credential in the U.S., according to Wacker.
Combining Measures of Cognitive Skills and Soft Skills
While the cognitive skills documented by the NCRC are important to job success, so-called “soft skills” – work-related behaviors – are also playing an increasingly important role in differentiating potential candidates for employment or advancement, particularly in STEM fields. ACT research shows that combining measures of cognitive skills and soft skills increases the accuracy of predictions about an individual’s success at work or in training.
Soft skills require a different measurement approach, Wacker said, which is why ACT introduced a second approach: the NCRC Plus.
The NCRC Plus is an enhanced credential that summarizes the scores achieved on the three NCRC assessments in addition to a fourth test – Talent – which is designed to measure an individual’s work-related attitudes and behaviors.
“Scores on the Talent assessment indicate an individual’s strengths plus areas to target for improvement,” Wacker said. “An engineer who might not possess the desired behaviors initially is empowered to understand, adopt, and practice them.”
The soft skills measured in the ACT WorkKeys Talent assessment relate to:
- Work Discipline – Productivity and dependability
- Teamwork – Tolerance, communication, and attitude
- Customer Service Orientation – Interpersonal skills and perseverance
- Managerial Potential – Persuasion, enthusiasm, and problem solving
The foundational skills certified by the NCRC and the NCRC Plus are recognized by thousands of employers, who use the assessments as a supplement when screening job applicants and making decisions about training and advancement of current employees.
“Because it is based on standardized assessments, the credential enables industrial employers to differentiate among STEM candidates, including engineers, who have achieved varying soft-skill levels,” Wacker said. “The quality of the information the credential communicates, and the ability to compare the skills of individuals who earn it, also creates new opportunities to better understand and cultivate the talent needed for business success.”
Today, organizations representing several industry sectors have adopted the NCRC as the gateway credential to certification systems and career pathways strategies. For instance, the Manufacturing Institute, the research arm of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), became the first organization to do so when it established the NAM-Endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System. The institute positioned the NCRC as the initial step in pathways to industry-recognized credentials offered by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council, the American Welding Society, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and others.
ACT has registered more than 2 million NCRCs and demand is rising each year. Registered credentials are currently distributed statewide or regionally in more than 40 states.