Think of the high school ACT test and an exam for college-bound students comes to mind. But the organization that puts on the tests also offers one for high school students who plan to go straight into the workforce full time once they graduate.

It's called the Work Keys exam and it tests students on their ability to use applied math, understand workplace documents and correctly use information from charts and graphs. Successfully passed, the test earns a student an ACT National Career Readiness certificate. 

The certificate is something a student can show on a résumé, and some south Louisiana parishes are now embarking on an ACT program linking students who take the test with local employers.

"Universities rely heavily on an ACT score. All the research that goes into that is the same kind of research that goes into the Work Keys test," said Mia Edwards, the Acension Parish school district's director of secondary education. 

Through a two-year program guided by the nonprofit ACT Inc., a parish can earn the bragging rights to be named a Work Ready Community by meeting a number of requirements. 

Probably the most significant is getting commitments from a certain number of local employers to make the Career Readiness certificate count in the hiring process.

It's a way, said Gramercy Mayor Steve Nosaka in St. James Parish, "to create work possibilities for our young people."

In February, St. James Parish became the first certified Work Ready Community in south Louisiana. Ascension Parish began the process this month, joining another south Louisiana parish, Iberia, in the Work Ready certification process.

Until now, the program in Louisiana has been pursued mostly in the central area of the state, where 13 contiguous parishes are Work Ready communities.

Nationally, there are more than 400 counties/parishes that have earned the distinction.

"It's best when it becomes a regional initative," said Bruce Waguespack, vice chancellor of workforce development for River Parishes Community College in Gonzales.

"Industries hire across parish lines," he said.

St. James Parish Schools Superintendent Ed Cancienne said, "We're hoping there will be a domino effect" with other nearby parishes joining the effort. 

At a kickoff event in Gonzales this month to launch the start of the two-year Work Ready process in Ascension Parish, a representative of a St. James employer, Americas Styrenics, told the audience the company had begun using Work Keys testing in 2013 to hire its process operators.

"Out of 80 operators hired as a result since then, all remain employed," said Kirtrell Ross, a human resources technician for the St. James plant.

Ascension Parish will need 56 employers to join its Work Ready effort, according to ACT Inc. guidelines.

It doesn't cost a business anything, said Ascension Parish Schools Superintendent David Alexander.

"We will take responsibility for providing you with a work-ready, certified workforce," Alexander told industry and business leaders at the April 2 kickoff luncheon. 

Work Ready communities must also offer the Work Keys curriculum and testing to unemployed and underemployed adults and military veterans.

The state pays for the cost of the test in a high school student's junior year, as it also does for the ACT exam. In some places, like St. James Parish, nonprofit groups help pay the approximately $20 cost of the test for adults.

Employers can also pick up the cost of the exam and ask employees to train for additional Work Keys exams, covering other workplace skills, local officials said. 

Apache Industrial Services in Geismar was the first Ascension Parish employer to sign up for the Work Ready program.

"We were interested in giving back to the community we work in and serve," said Trey Granier, director of training and workforce development. 

The company already provides free, after-school training in scaffolding installation and painting for high school students in Ascension, St. James and St. Charles parishes. 

Granier said he expects that, once they have experience under their belt, employees who come in with a Career Readiness certificate would eventually attain supervisory or other roles.

"Those would be good candidates for that," he said. 


Follow Ellyn Couvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.