Sometimes it’s hard to stand out from the crowd when applying for a job after college. But not anymore. At Phoenix College (PC), students in COM 110 are given a fighting chance with the Arizona Career Readiness Credential (ACRC). The program was developed through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and a local collaboration among the Governor’s office, the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the Arizona Commerce Authority and ARIZONA@WORK. The test is based on Arizona labor-market research that suggests local employers have difficulty finding, developing and retaining a qualified workforce. It’s not always about the technical skills, but the “soft skills” of communication, professionalism, work ethic, attitude and problem-solving.
That’s where PC comes in. Two professors, Dr. Nicholas DelSordi, sociology and Rowdy Duncan, communication, devised a plan to launch students’ careers faster. Dr. DelSordi volunteers for the OEO and is collaborating with the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry and CoreCivic to soon bring the ACRC program to the state’s incarcerated population who may need a leg up in finding a job after they are released from prison. He has also piloted the certification in his sociology courses and with students in the PC Behavioral Science Mentor Program. When COVID-19 slowed down the program temporarily, he thought of Duncan’s COM 110 class, Interpersonal Communication, which focuses on communication, professionalism, teamwork, collaboration, conflict resolution, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving.
But how do you proctor multiple module tests with multiple students – all while working remotely? Dr. DelSordi had three dedicated students, Ricardo Villafan, Estrella Diaz and Martel Stevenson from the Behavioral Science Mentor Program, that had originally volunteered to work in the prison, so why not leverage their skills at the College instead?
“The student proctors are the real heroes of this effort,” said Dr. DelSordi. “They volunteered. They had taken and passed the certification before and knew its power and impact. Each proctor managed to help Duncan’s whole class – proctoring four exams for multiple students. They all put in 10- 15 hours of volunteer time on top of going to classes, working, campus engagement and other volunteering.”
The three proctors understand the importance of giving back, helping their communities and supporting other students’ success. After all, more than 530 Arizona business locations recognize the program and look for graduates with those critical, soft skills so often forgotten in the workplace.
“In the fall of 2020, I earned my ACRC credential in the mentor program at PC. Since then, I decided to get involved with the program and my community. I now volunteer for Opportunities for Youth so that I can be a voice for the youth in my community so that they can be successful. This semester, I’m working with PC Communication students as an ACRC proctor to create a gateway for students to be prepared for the workforce,” said student proctor Ricardo Villafan who is also a student ambassador on PC’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Committee.
To date, 100 percent of the roughly 30 Phoenix College students who have taken the ACRC exams have passed with some level of credential (platinum, gold, silver or bronze). The completion rate across the state of Arizona is about 90 percent.
The premise is easy enough: Take a test, have an advantage getting hired. But still, some students, at first, didn’t enjoy the idea of taking a 3-4 hour test (even though the test can be taken all at once or in stages). Outside of soft skills, the test also asks scenario-based questions in math, reading and locating information, that are based on real-life workplace situations (like analyzing an email or memo, calculating sales percentages, or tracking the workflow of an organization).
“I tell my students that the economy thrives when you’re successful,” said Duncan. “It’s a real difference-maker in their career. The certificate says, ‘I am a stellar candidate and will be an asset, someone you want to work with’. It helps you stand out to employers. Having a degree doesn’t mean you have interpersonal skills.”
That proved true when one student, a single mother with a college degree who was re-building her career, told Duncan that the test wouldn’t be beneficial and wondered why she had to take it? In one assignment, reflecting on the test, she admitted that the COM110 and ACRC test was really about life and one of the keys to happiness with the people you care about most. She said she was going to tell other people about the test because she found it that important.”
In the future, DelSordi and Duncan hope to expand the program to more classes with more faculty adding it into their curriculum [TJ1] [DC2] [DC3] and finding volunteer practitioners. The volunteer student proctors, who are trained through the OEO, can now also say they have worked with a state agency to help build their resumes.
“It’s not just about having the technical knowledge required for your job; it’s about seeing it in practice,” said Dr. DelSordi. “Knowing how to navigate conflict, how to form healthy workplace relationships and building trust with your employer. The certificate is further validation that what students are learning in the classroom is important in the world of work as well. It validates that students are actively working to become better employees and coworkers. The ACRC also helps students think about the career side versus the academic side of their college experience. This benefits the PC community and the Arizona labor market in a meaningful and measurable way.”