The Unemployment Test: People blocked from getting hired in SC

STORY UPDATED BELOW

(WSPA) – More South Carolinians are working now that at any time in the state’s history and the unemployment rate is near historic lows.

But even as the state approaches what many economists call “full employment” there are many willing workers who will be left behind, in part because of a recruiting tool that puts many to work and leaves some without a shot.

There are still more than 90,000 unemployed South Carolinians. Meanwhile, the state Department of Employment and Workforce alone advertises more than 63,000 available jobs.

Christopher Cousino is one of those looking for work.

Cousino worked as a machine technician and just got his commercial drivers license. But after a layoff in the spring he found himself without a paycheck and his family was in a bind.

“Bills don’t stop. Luckily my wife works. That been kinda keeping us afloat,” Cousino said.

By the numbers, finding a new job shouldn’t be that hard. In South Carolina there are more job openings than there are unemployed people.

In Greenville County alone, there are more than sixteen thousand open jobs. There are another six thousand in Spartanburg County.

The average posted salary for a job advertised through SC WORKS is nearly $43,000 a year.

And yet, 90,000 South Carolinians remain unemployed.

There are a lot of reasons why that’s true. Some employers have complained that the opiod crisis has drained the pool of available employees. There are many jobs that people simply don’t want, at least at the current pay, and there are some people who may never be willing to work at all.

But there are also entry level positions, like dishwasher or hotel maid, with hiring standards so high that thousands of willing workers can never get a foot in the door.

That’s because of a standardized test called “Work Keys”.

The state has spent millions on bringing the test to job seekers and students.

It’s developed by ACT, the same group that does the college entrance exams.

It comes in three sections like “applied mathematics” and in each section test takers earn scores on a scale that goes from 1 to 7…7 is the best or, so called “platinum” level.

“This way they can take a test and find out what skills they actually have that are transferable to an actual business,” said Diane Goldwire, area director for the SC DEW.

Since 2011, nearly 400,000 South Carolina job seekers have taken the online test.

Now, the same test is given to all South Carolina high school juniors.

Federal records show the same exam has also led to large fines and penalties in several states where the US Department of Labor found “work keys” has a serious potential for abuse and prevents some people from ever finding entry level jobs.

“What the employer wants to do is find a applicant that would be suitable and can learn that job and not everybody’s qualified,” said job profiler Hy Small.

As a job profiler, Small goes to each employer who lists jobs with the state and notes the skills required for the position. He also meets with “subject matter experts” at the hiring company.

That profile determines which “work keys” scores will be required for an open job.

Getting that score wrong has been the trigger for that federal intervention. Like last June, in Virginia, a federal contractor agreed to stop using work keys for entry level jobs after the government found the test unfairly eliminated hundreds of qualified applicants saying the test “was not job related.”

Companies in California, New York, Ohio, Washington, and Alabama have agreed to settle similar cases.

“They’ll say if you want to apply for this job you need a level 5 in mathematics. That sets them up for a liability that they are not even conscious of,” Small said.

But even with a complete job profile, many applicants still won’t get a chance to be hired at companies that require the work keys test.

According to the official ACT website, a job like “dishwasher” would require a minimum score of “3” in all three work keys categories.

The same scores are required for jobs like waiting tables or hotel housekeeping.

In fact, a three on all of the sections on the work keys test is the minimum score to apply for any job advertised through SC Works.

“3 is the entry level for the skills,” Small said.

7 News did not get numbers for how many job applicants fail to qualify for work, but the Department of Education does release the results from the 50 thousand high school juniors who took the test in 2016.

That year, 13% of test takers scored below a three in at least one section. Applied mathematics was the biggest challenge. One in 10 high school juniors failed to get the qualifying score. The results were even more troubling for African-American students. One in 5 scored below a 3.

SC Works does allow test takers multiple, free, opportunities to retake the test.

UPDATE: 8/11/17

After our story aired, Robert Bouyea, a spokesman for the state Department of Employment and Workforce contacted 7 News by email.

“Anybody can apply for any job through SC Works even if they have never taken a WorkKeys assessment,” Bouya wrote.

“The only time that the score is pertinent to applying is when the EMPLOYER requires it and the agency will only allow them to do so if they have had the job profiled. No one is being “blocked” from applying for jobs in South Carolina.”

“Hy Smalls comments were that a three was needed but only IF a company is using workkeys as a job requirement.”

Cousino has since contacted WSPA to say he has found work.