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Matchmaker

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In recent weeks, a number of students at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla., have volunteered 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 in its second year, the program is the first pilot test for a national initiative known as Worklink, brainchild of the Educational Testing Service, the same company that offers the SAT. Although the recession put a damper on the first year of the project, its backers say the rationale behind Worklink remains sound: to motivate students to work harder in school, while providing a mechanism for employers to hire well-qualified entrylevel workers.

Thus far, however, most students at Hillsborough High appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. Sylvia Lufriu, an occupational-assessment specialist at the school, says that, despite students' strong interest in Worklink, roughly the same number of students at her school signed up this year as last, when 53 entered the program. Why so few? "It's something new, and there's a test involved,'' says Lufriu. "Whenever there's a test involved, kids don't jump into it until it's a proven success.''

Local business and education officials are confident that the program will catch on--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, it will be difficult to persuade students and teachers to continue to make the time-consuming effort to participate.

Created in 1989, Worklink is one of several national efforts to bridge schools and the workplace and address the "skills gap'' that many business leaders and policymakers warn is a prime obstacle to improving the nation's economic competitiveness. The point, says Barbara Titus, executive director for community development of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, is to ensure that the so-called "forgotten half''--students not planning to pursue postsecondary education--receive the schooling they need to thrive after they graduate. "These students have been given a message that they are not as valuable as those going on to college,'' Titus says. "It's not a subtle message. Guidance counseling and the structure of the curriculum are geared to collegebound students.''

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 ETS and the manager of Worklink. 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.

School and business officials 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. And Elford has been talking with major business organizations about expanding it even further.

While the ETS 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. But, says Elford, "it's not a big-ticket item.''

The Hillsborough schools-- with 119,810 pupils, the 12th largest district in the country--represent an ideal site for the pilot. For one thing, the district has long had close ties with the business community. Business, says Titus, is "a voice in this community that is listened to by students.''

Another advantage Hillsborough offered the project was a computer system that was already in place. A local firm, Human Resource Management Center, has been operating a system called Electronic Job Matching for employees already in the workforce. As a service to the community, the firm's president, Ronald Selawach, who is also the head of the local private-industry council, agreed to add Worklink to the system.

Worklink is voluntary on the part of students and employers, but it works only if both 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 school officials limited the program to seven 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 roughly 1,000 students are participating. Some 140 employers-- both big and small--subscribed to the system last year, according to Selawach, who is expecting "a lot more'' to join this year.

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 course work, including outof-school classes that might be relevant; awards, honors, and commendations; and job-related tests, such as typing tests. They 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 ETS, that measures their ability to read and understand work manuals, solve mathematics problems, and write an essay. 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 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 teachers. As a result, the program's coordinator in each school spends a lot of time chasing down errant forms. "It gets a little hairy,'' says Carla Moseley, head of the businesseducation department at C. Leon King High School. "They forget. I have to send reminder notices.''

Lufriu of Hillsborough High adds that she must also prod teachers to keep up with the paper flow by sending in their evaluation forms. "It's a lot to keep up with,'' she says, "but it's worth it.''

A more serious worry, according to school officials, is whether businesses in sufficient numbers will use the system to hire graduating seniors. Titus of the area chamber of commerce acknowledges that the recession limited the program's usefulness last year. "Companies are downsizing,'' she says. "Why figure out how to bring on more personnel when you're trying to consolidate?'' But, she says, Worklink could be a cost-effective system for businesses that do choose to hire workers during a time of economic uncertainty.

Despite the lack of hiring in the first year, teachers and business leaders maintain that the system has begun to pay off. Moseley, for one, believes it has succeeded in motivating students to work harder in school. "Secondsemester seniors tend to slack off,'' she points out. "[Those participating in Worklink] know they put the transcript in there, and they didn't slack off.''

And Lufriu of Hillsborough High believes the program has helped students in their jobseeking by encouraging them to think about information that might go into a standard resume. "It gives employers a better picture of a person,'' she says. "It opens up more avenues.''--Robert Rothman

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