For community members in search of career opportunities and advancement, Southeastern Community College in Keokuk was a one-stop shop Wednesday.
A job fair and a free work skills assessment were offered by SCC, the Keokuk Area Chamber of Commerce, the Keokuk Economic Development Corporation and Iowa Workforce Development.
Organizers believe Wednesday’s job fair was the first one ever held on the SCC Keokuk campus.
More than 100 people attended the two-hour event, according to chamber Executive Director Chuck Betts. He said the organizers had anticipated seeing only 50 to 60 in attendance.
“One (company) I talked to said, ‘This is great. I got 10 solid applications,’” Betts said.
He met job seekers of all ages and backgrounds at the sign-in table including a man with a master’s degree in psychology, another with experience in corporate-level sales and still another who’s a certified crane operator.
Steve Bisenius, executive director of the Lee County Economic Development Group, described the mood of those in attendance as “very upbeat.”
“People are very enthusiastic to be here,” Bisenius said. “We’re listening. We’re learning as well.”
Bisenius has heard that most people are willing to commute no more than half an hour to work – all the more reason job fairs need to be more accessible and convenient, he said.
Janet Fife-LaFrenz, SCC Board of Trustees member, said job fairs need to be offered more frequently in the community. Fife-LaFrenz and others in attendance remarked that the job fair’s small size was beneficial to job seekers and businesses alike.
“The response has been great,” said Trish Merydith, manager of Taske Force Inc., a temporary employment agency. “It’s small enough that everybody is going to each and every table. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to each person.”
Merydith estimated that 90 percent of the attendees with whom she’d spoken are unemployed. A lot of interest was expressed for construction and fabrication jobs, she said.
“I’ve had three (visitors) from Siemens in the last hour,” Merydith said, referring to the Fort Madison wind turbine plant that recently laid off more than 400 employees.
The company announced Friday that it had recalled 13 workers and hopes to restore the positions of 73 more. Merydith said the laid-off Siemens employees who visited the job fair want their livelihoods back, but are unwilling to wait for recalls.
The path to finding a job is easier for some people than others, as Susie Gray of Keokuk can attest. Within a matter of days after her recent move back to the area from New York, Gray found work as a direct care worker for Iowa Home Based Services. She visited the job fair with a friend who’s still seeking employment.
Gray said she’d never imagined she had the skills necessary to provide supervision and transportation to people with special needs.
“Some people think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that job,’ and they can,” said Bev Brotherton, IHBS’ director of home- and community-based services.
Henniges Automotive Supply is on the lookout for production workers. Monica Cochran, human resources generalist for Henniges, said all that’s required is a high school diploma and a willingness to work.
Even in a struggling economy and job market, “it’s the willingness to work that gets us every time,” Cochran said.
Karole Smith of Keokuk was among those whose willingness to work drew her to the job fair. She found her most recent job at the Lee County American Red Cross during a visit to a job fair in Burlington.
Smith’s position as director of the local Red Cross chapter was cut in November 2012 due to consolidation. Clad in business attire and clutching a portfolio under her arm, Smith has returned to the job fair circuit with her head held high.
“It never hurts to get out there and submit your resumé,” Smith said.
She believes job fairs are an ideal way to learn what positions employers are looking to fill.
“This is a good benefit for the community,” Smith said. “It gives people a way to network. If you haven’t been a job seeker in the past, you don’t know where to start and how to get information on companies in the area.”
Other companies represented at the job fair were Advance Home Health Care, Allied Blending and Ingredients, KOKX Radio, Liberty Foods, Roquette America Inc., and Thomas L. Cardella and Associates.
Thirty to 40 individuals Wednesday at SCC comprised the pilot group for a new work skills assessment program being launched by IWD.
The assessment typically costs $60, but IWD is offering it for free to Iowa residents via Gov. Terry Branstad’s Skilled Iowa program. It’s available for a small fee to those who live outside the state.
Test-takers who pass the assessment receive a National Career Readiness Certificate, which demonstrates to employers a level of workplace employability skills in applied mathematics, locating information and reading for information. A platinum, gold, silver or bronze certificate is awarded based on how well the test-taker scores.
Four businesses represented at the job fair – Cardella, Advance Home Health Care, Iowa Home Based Services and KOKX – signed letters of commitment in support of NCRC. Allied Blending and Taske Force already were on board with the program. Roquette sent an employee to take the assessment.
“It’s the perfect opportunity for employers to recruit and for us to communicate the importance of the assessment,” said Debra Fox, business marketing specialist for Iowa Works’ Southeast Iowa branch in Burlington.
The NCRC test is a computer-based assessment, which also demonstrates that participants have basic electronic skills, according to Fox.
William Stuflick, IWD regional manager, received “very positive feedback” from Keokuk High School teacher Missy Boutwell, who brought 21 sophomores, juniors and seniors to the assessment. All students who participated are enrolled in Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates, a dropout-prevention and workforce skills program.
KHS is the first school in Iowa to have its students take the NCRC assessment.
The program “gives kids a nationally-recognized certificate to go with their resumé,” Stuflick said.
Boutwell said one gold, nine silver and seven bronze-level certificates were earned by her students for a total of 17 passing the exam. Four failed the assessment, but will re-take it before the end of the school year.
“A lot of the kids struggled with locating information,” she said about the last portion of the test. “Some of them said it was the longest, and they had (already) been in the room for more than two hours.”
Many students were unfamiliar with topics such as animal care, she added.
“We did pretty good for our first time,” Boutwell said. “We were guinea pigs, I think.”
Senior Alisha Atterberg earned a silver certificate.
“I was nervous but it turned out really good,” said Atterberg, who wants to become a registered nurse.
Her NCRC scores indicated that she is skilled in charts and mathematics.
“I would take it again and try to do better,” Atterberg said.
Fox encourages other Southeast Iowa communities interested in bringing the NCRC assessment to their residents to contact her at 800-642-4032, ext. 31452.
For more information about the NCRC assessment and the Skilled Iowa program, call Fox or go to www.skillediowa.org.