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Despite Recession's Impact, Tampa High on School-to-Work Link

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TAMPA, FLA.--Over the next few weeks, students at Hillsborough High School here will volunteer to gather their school records, compile their work histories, and take a specially prepared test of work-related skills.

The resulting dossiers will be fed into a computer system--and then, it is hoped, catch the eye of local employers seeking a better way to match available skills with available jobs.

Now gearing up for its second year, the program here is the first pilot test for a national initiative, known as Worklink, created by the Educational Testing Service.

Although the recession has put a damper on the first year of the project, its backers say the concept behind Worklink remains sound. They argue that the program will motivate students to work harder in school, while providing a mechanism for employers to hire well-qualified entry-level workers.

But most students at Hillsborough High appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Sylvia E. Lufriu, an occupational-assessment specialist at the school, said in a recent interview that, despite students' strong interest in Worklink, she expected that ultimately about the same number of Hillsborough High students would sign up this year as last, when 53 entered the program.

The reason, she said, is that the program is "not a proven thing yet."

"It's something new, and there's a test involved,'' Ms. Lufriu said. "Whenever there's a test involved, kids don't jump into it, until it's a proven success."

Business and education officials here maintain that the Worklink pilot project has already reaped benefits. And they predict it will prove itself when the economy picks up and companies become more willing to take advantage of the system to hire graduating seniors.

But educators also add a cautionary note. Unless businesses start to take greater advantage of the program, they say, it will be difficult to persuade students and teachers to continue to make the time-consuming effort to participate. And, they suggest, it would also be hard to convince the school beard to continue providing time for teachers to serve as coordinators for the pilot.

Nevertheless, said Earl J. Lennard, the assistant superintendent for vocational, technical, and adult education for the Hillsborough County public schools, the school system is committed to finding a way to ensure that students are prepared to enter the labor force.

"It may be, down the road, that [Worklink] is not what we think it is," Mr. Lennard said. "We'll look for other ways."

"We've got to bridge the gap between schools and the workplace," he said.

Aiming at 'Forgotten Half

Created in 1989, Worklink is one of several national efforts to address the "skills gap" that many business leaders and policymakers warn is a prime obstacle to improving the nation's economic competitiveness.

Next month, for example, the U.S. Labor Department's Secretary's Cornmission on Achieving Necessary Skills is expected to issue its final report outlining the skills high-school graduates need in order to enter an increasingly technical workplace.

In addition, the American College Testing Program is developing Work Keys, a system of assessing employability skills. The first assessments-on information, teamwork, applied mathematics, listening, and writing--are expected to be pilot tested this fall, according to Joel D.

West, the senior vice president for programs at the A.C.T.

All of these efforts, said Barbara L. Titus, the executive director for community development of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, are essential to ensure that the so-called "forgotten hall"students not planning to pursue postsecondary education--receive the schooling they need to thrive after they graduate from high school.

"These students have been given a message that they are not as valuable as those going on to college," Ms. Titus said. "it's not a subtle message. Guidance counseling and the structure of the curriculum are geared to college-bound students."

Other Sites Planned

Into the gap between the needs of non-college-bound students and the programs provided for them stepped George Elford, the director of the Washington office of the Educational Testing Service and the manager of the Worklink project.

In 1989, Mr. Elford began discussing with educators and business leaders the idea of creating a system for assessing students' skills and making the information accessible to employers. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1989.)

School and business officials here in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, agreed to become the first pilot site for the system, and began to implement it in the 1990-91 school year. Last fall, school and business officials in Pasadena, Calif., also agreed to serve as a test site and began to design a system that could be put in place this spring.

Districts in Harrisburg, Pa., central New Jersey, and Juneau, Alaska, have also begun discussions with local businesses to join the project. Mr. Elford has been talking with major business organizations about expanding it even further.

While the E.T.s. is footing the bill for the Tampa pilot--it costs about $7 to $10 per student for record development--other sites are expected to be self-supporting, according to Mr. Elford. But, he said, "It's not a big-ticket."

Close Ties in Tampa

Officials in Tampa say the Hillsborough County schools--with 119,810 pupils, the 12th-largest district in the country--represent an ideal site for the pilot.

The district has long had close ties with the business community, according to Ms. Titus of the chamber of commerce.

Business is "a voice in this community that is listened to by students," she said.

As an example, she said, the schools and businesses each year hold a "Great American Teach-In," in which some 6,300 local executives spend a day in classrooms talking to students about their careers.

Another advantage Hillsborough County offered the project was a computer system that was already in place. A local firm, Human Resource Management Center Inc., operates a similar system, called Electronic Job Matching, for employees already in the workforce.

As a service to the community, the firm's president, Ronald P. Selawach, who is also the head of the local private-industry council, agreed to add Worklink to the existing system.

"We've already been through the trials and tribulations" of creating the system, Mr. Selewach said. "We knew how employers went about their hiring decisions, and what information they were looking for."

Although Mr. Selawach said his computer system could be expanded for use throughout the country if Worklink expands nationwide, Mr. Elford of the E.T.S. said he was considering other computer systems for a national system.

Mr. Selawach "has been superb in the pilot; he's made it possible," Mr. Elford said.

"But the way he has it configured, Worklink is a subset of the larger Electronic Job Matching," he added. "We probably want Worklink to be a more visible element, rather than part of a larger menu."

A Voluntary System

As envisioned by its sponsors, Worklink is voluntary on the part of students and employers, but it works only if both parties participate. If too few students sign up, employers will have a limited pool to choose from; at the same time, students would find few opportunities if only a handful of companies sought workers through the system.

To keep the pilot project manageable, Hillsborough County school officials limited the program to 7 of the district's 14 high schools in its first year; some 300 seniors signed up. This year, it has expanded to all high schools, and officials expect about 1,000 students to participate.

Some 140 employers subscribed to the system last year, according to Mr. Selawach, who said that he was expecting "a lot more" to join this year.

Although the list of subscribers includes such large firms as Barnett and Sun banks, the General Telephone and Electronics Corporation, and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Mr. Selawach said the project is particularly appealing to small firms, which seldom conduct their own recruiting.

To participate, students must fill out forms listing their work experience, including the number of hours worked, the tasks performed, and names and telephone numbers of references; their coursework, including out-of-school classes that might be relevant; awards, honors, and commendations; and job-related tests, such as typing tests.

The students must also ask teachers to fill out computer forms indicating the students' attendance, punctuality, attentiveness, effectiveness in group work, and cooperation in class.

In addition, the students take a one-hour test, developed by the E.T.S., that measures their ability to read and understand work manuals, solve mathematics problems, and write a brief essay.

Paperwork Burden

All of this information, along with the students' academic transcripts, which are reformatted to be consistent across all district schools, is then entered into the computer system. Employers who pay a $25 fee can then tap into the system, indicate the characteristics they are looking for in an employee, and receive the names and records of those who match their specifications.

One difficulty schools have encountered in implementing the program is the paperwork burden, which can be onerous for students and schools, according to Carla Moseley, the head of the business education department at Tampa's C. Leon King High School.

As a result, she said, the program's coordinator in each school spends a lot of time chasing down errant forms.

"It gets a little hairy," Ms. Moseley said. "They forget. I have to send reminder notices."

Ms. Lufriu of Hillsborough High added that she must also continually prod teachers to keep up with the paper flow by sending in their evaluation forms. "It's harder getting something back from a colleague than from a student," she said.

"It's a lot to keep up with, but it's worth it," she added.

Mr. Elford said the E.T.S. is looking into a software package that would enable schools to put the information directly into a computer and eliminate much of the paperwork.

"If there's too much paper, there's too much weight," he said. "It will sink, I'm afraid."

Recession's Impact

A more serious worry, according to school officials here, is whether businesses in sufficient numbers will use the system to hire graduating seniors.

Ms. Titus of the area chamber of commerce acknowledged that the recession limited the program's usefulness last year.

"Companies are downsizing," she said. "Why figure out how to bring on more personnel when you're trying to consolidate?"

But, she said, Worklink could be a cost-effective system for businesses that do choose to hire workers during a time of economic uncertainty.

"Employers who do hire will only hire those who provide the excellence they need to be profitable," Ms. Titus said.

Reginald L. Coachman, a regional manager for Church's Chicken, a chain of fast-food restaurants, saw a demonstration of the system last month. He suggested that the program could enable businesses to hire lower-wage entry-level workers they might not consider hiring now.

"We have been paying for lots of experience," Mr. Coachman said. "We assume people [immediately out of school] are not qualified."

Students who participate in the system would be spared the frustration of consistently encountering closed doors, a common occurrence during a slack time, said Rick Sherrell, the president of Visibility Enterprises Inc., a public-relations firm.

"There are only so many 'noes' you can take before it gets in the way of your motivation to seek a job," he said.

In the future, said Mr. Elford, the E.T.S. is considering adjusting the system so that students looking for parttime or summer jobs could take advantage of it. Many of those who signed up here last year were college bound students who were seeking short-term employment, he noted.

"One of the limitations we had in Tampa was that we only piloted a truncated version of Worklink," Mr. Elford said. "To get the full effect, we need it tied to a four-year effort, so that students can start as freshmen and start building a record," including part-time and summer work.

Seen as a Motivator

Despite the lack of hiring in the first year, teachers and business leaders maintain that the system has begun to pay off.

As its sponsors had hoped, Ms. Moseley of King High said, Worklink has succeeded in motivating students to work harder in school.

"Second-semester seniors tend to slack off," she pointed out. "[Those participating in Worklink] know they put the transcript in there, and they didn't slack off."

Ms. Lufriu of Hillsborough High added that the program has also helped students in their job-seeking by encouraging them to think about information that might go into a standard resume. In fact, she said, several students used printouts of their Worklink records as resumes.

"It gives employers a better picture of a person," she said. "It opens up more avenues."

Both Ms. Lufriu and Ms. Titus of the chamber of commerce disputed the idea that Worklink was forcing students to focus on work-related skills at the expense of academic coursework. In fact, Ms. Titus said, the workplace demands "all the basics a liberal education would cultivate."

"Educators go off on tangents, thinking that what work requires of schools is how to run a lathe and nothing more," Ms. Titus said.

While most educators said the Worklink record offers a good indication of a students' abilities, Ms. Lufriu also expressed some reservations about the test results, particularly those on the essay question.

But Ms. Titus said that test results are perhaps the least important aspect of the Worklink record.

"Showing responsible behavior through attendance, a project a teacher identifies as being well done, team effort--those kinds of pictures are going to pop out to an employer more positively than a test score," she said.

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