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According to the U.S. Department of Education, New Mexico ranks last in the country in high school completion rates. Major employers in the state complain that it's difficult to find qualified job applicants. And now, some are taking the emphasis off the high school diploma in favor of a standardized test. It's a test that may make it easier to find the right people for the job.
Sayre Quevedo of Youth Radio visited a city office that's preparing to use the new system.
SAYRE QUEVEDO, BYLINE: Mike Smith is changing the way Albuquerque hires bus drivers.
MIKE SMITH: There are people out there that want to enter into the workforce, but because they don't have their GED, or they don't have their high school diploma, they're not working.
QUEVEDO: Actually, it's not just bus drivers he's concerned about. The city of Albuquerque employs nearly 7,000 people, making it one of the largest employers in the state. Smith, the director of the city's Public Service University, says there are 275 bus drivers, 200 garbage collectors and 78 Early Head Start teaching assistants, all positions that used to require a high school diploma and soon will be available to applicants who achieve benchmark scores on a test - the WorkKeys assessment.
SMITH: This will be our primary testing. We'll have 15 computers in here for WorkKeys testing, and our backup lab is next door.
QUEVEDO: It's made by the ACT company, the same people who make the college readiness exam, except WorkKeys doesn't test algebra or even a person's knowledge base. Instead, it uses real-world scenarios to measure job readiness.
SMITH: I don't think that we're lowering the bar. WorkKeys would allow me to hire the most qualified person for the job. This tells us I've proven that I can do these things, so I actually think it's raising the bar.
QUEVEDO: Though some question whether the bar is being raised unevenly. James Outtz is an industrial and organizational psychologist. He regularly evaluates pre-employment tests for major companies, examining the potential for discrimination.
JAMES OUTTZ: Typically, minorities may not have as good an educational background as a general rule as non-minorities. They can be screened out of jobs that they could, in fact, perform.
QUEVEDO: But requiring high school diplomas also screens out capable job seekers. And with 21 percent of young people in New Mexico not completing high school, the state is a prime candidate for testing out a skills-based hiring solution. Plus, if the test helps Albuquerque make better hires, Smith says it'll save them tons in turnover costs.
SMITH: Two or three months in, you've got $40,000 invested in this person, and then you have to let them go. That's a huge investment on the city's part.
QUEVEDO: And that's for just one position. Multiply that by a couple hundred turnovers yearly and we're talking major lost revenue. And WorkKeys doesn't just appeal to employers. In a tough market, job seekers, especially young people, are giving the test a try.
ANA DIAZ: My name is Ana Diaz. I am 17 years old. I attend Capital High School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
QUEVEDO: Diaz sits in Capital High's Youth Workforce Connection Center, which connects students to college and career opportunities. It helped her land a job last summer at an Allstate Insurance brokerage.
DIAZ: My first task was to answer phone calls. I was so nervous, oh, my gosh.
QUEVEDO: The shy junior got the secretarial job after taking the WorkKeys test. She says she started out sounding like a mouse, but over time, Diaz got more comfortable. Soon, she was a pro.
DIAZ: I would be like, good morning, thank you for calling Allstate Insurance. This is Ana speaking. How may I help you?
QUEVEDO: It was her first ever job. Without any previous work experience, Diaz believes the WorkKeys assessment gave her a leg up. And now that she's had a job, she hopes landing her next one will be that much easier. For NPR News, I'm Sayre Quevedo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.