Testing…Testing…Does This Thing Work?

Nov 8, 2013

Credit Florida Senate

Is Florida doing all it can to help unemployed people get back to work? Not everyone thinks so. At least one lawmaker says a skills assessment citizens are required to take before collecting benefits is doing more harm than good.

Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice) says she’s worried people applying for reemployment assistance might find the state’s test so frustrating they’d quit midway through or maybe never take the test at all.

“Are we spending millions to help people? Or are we spending millions just to annoy unemployed people,” Detert says.

Deter says when lawmakers passed a rule requiring the test, the unemployment rate in Florida was as high as 12 percent and it was important to identify various places where unemployed people might re-enter the workforce.

But Detert says the test the state is administering doesn’t do that.  Instead she says it just serves to check whether someone knows how to read and do basic math. And she thinks it probably also makes them feel bad.

“Either a third grader could pass it, or an adult with reasonable intelligence would say, ‘They’re putting up hurdles to keep me from collecting unemployment,'” Detert says.

Florida Public Radio asked the Department of Economic Opportunity for a look at the assessment, but department officials say that’s against policy because officials “would not want a job seeker to receive an inaccurate assessment.” But they did send a demo test, which department spokeswoman  Jessica Sims says asks the same kinds of questions – like this one:

“Tony is paid $7.25 per hour and time-and-a-half for any time over 40 hours. What is his total earnings if he worked 42-and-a-half hours?”

The test is split into three parts: a math section, a reading-comprehension section and a section that asks the test taker to find information on a chart. Department officials are careful to point out there’s no pass or fail associated with the assessment. Once it’s completed -- it took me about an hour -- the participant is given a chance to review skills from the test.

Detert wonders if the test available at the state’s one-stop shops, like Tallahassee’s WORKFORCE Plus, might be a better option.

WORKFORCE Assessment Officer Darlene Philips says a popular test there asks questions about a person’s interests like “Would you like to guard money in an armored car and would you like to make a map of the bottom of the ocean?”

After testers finish, it pops up a list of potential jobs that might fit their interests and even highlights which ones are available in the area. Philips says the system also lets people list jobs they’ve held previously and then recommends other types of jobs that require similar skills. Philips says from what she sees it’s a helpful system.

“A lot of times people don’t know that the assessments are here, that they’re available, but then we’re getting the word out and people are trying it and going, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was here.’ So, yeah, I think this is going well,” Philips says.

Detert raised her concerns during a Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee meeting  where she grilled Department of Economic Opportunity officials on the current practice.

“That’s the beauty of early meetings. We’re fresh from living in our own hometowns and hearing the problems and we’re trying to address the problems that we hear in our own communities,” Detert said.

Florida Public Radio asked Detert’s office for information about who brought these complaints to the senator and filed a public records request in an attempt to obtain that information from the senator’s e-mails. But in an e-mail, Detert told the Senate secretary’s office she has not received any e-mails or letters on the subject and is questioning the skills assessment based on her own opinion.

Department of Economic Opportunity officials say they’re stuck in their current contract until June of 2014. Detert says officials inherited the program from the Department of Education, adding she doesn’t blame the DEO, but does wonder if the state could switch more quickly if Florida already owns the rights to something like what WORKFORCE Plus is using.