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FARMINGTON — San Juan County has been named the first ACT Inc. Certified Work Ready Community in New Mexico.

Obtaining the designation — an effort that started about four years ago by local economic development, college and state labor officials — will benefit residents looking for work, according to Four Corners Economic Development Chief Operating Officer Tom Taylor.

The designation by the organization, which is better known for its college admissions and placement test, will also will help employers during the hiring process and enhance the area's appeal to new businesses, Taylor said.

"For the (human resources) folks involved in the hiring process, it basically presents you with a skill set and an applicant appropriate for the job you are looking to fill," he said. "If you've got a company that's expanding or one that 's interested in relocating to this area, it answers one of the top concerns companies have: 'Yes, we have these skills.'"

A job seeker with an ACT certification is more likely to be successful in a new job, and the employer has a greater certainty of that applicant's skills, Taylor added.

During a panel discussion at San Juan College last year, Ken Hare, chairman of 4CED’s workforce steering committee, spoke about feedback the committee gathered from more than 150 employers in the area. The results showed that expediting the hiring process and having a certified pool of job applicants ranked high with companies.

Taylor said that still holds true for employers.

"Workforce training and employee skills are major issues, no matter where you are," Taylor said. "(The ACT designation) is a way to help businesses get through that process of hiring, and it gives us a really clear picture of the skills in our community."

Julie Rasor has been a part of the multi-year certification effort since 2012 and wrote a $50,000 grant to help the initiative get off the ground. She said the designation will help companies save time and money and increase worker placement with less employee turnover.

The certification ranked workers in three categories: emerging, current and transitioning. Based on regional demographics analyzed by ACT, the county was given benchmark numbers to achieve. The county's ACT designation needs to be re-certified every two years with new goals and benchmarks.

Through area schools and San Juan College, applicants from high school students to veterans were given skills tests to demonstrate essential job skills in three areas — the ability to perform basic workplace math, to read and understand common workplace documents and to find information based on graphics commonly found on the job, Rasor said.

So far, 2,023 people in San Juan County have been assessed and certified under the ACT's WorkKeys assessment program, and 70 local employers have officially endorsed the designation and will look for the certification from job seekers.

In a prepared statement released last week, San Juan College President Toni Pendergrass said the certification will help residents find jobs they are suited for and employers attain the qualified workforce they need.

"This prestigious designation allows high school and college students a unique opportunity to prove their work readiness skills to obtain the jobs that will pave the way to a future for their lives and lives of their families," she said. "In turn, employers who hire candidates with this certification can trust that they have a valuable tool that can improve hiring decisions, as well as reduce training time and turnover."

Tony Garife, ACT regional manager, congratulated the county and stakeholders.

"The progressive thinking and positive action demonstrated by county leadership shows an enduring commitment to growing the economic success of the area," Garife said in prepared remarks.

One of the 70 local employers that values the workforce skill designation is Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland.

Derrick Watchman, CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, said in an email that the designation strengthens the area's ability to place skilled workers with quality jobs.

The tribe's gaming enterprise — which in addition to Norther Edge includes three other casinos on the reservation — employs about 1,200 people. Northern Edge has about 300 employees, about 90 percent of whom are Navajo, according to casino officials.

"Similar to our work with the Navajo Nation creating high quality jobs and increasing economic opportunities, we support efforts of San Juan County through the ACT designation to improve our region," Watchman said.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com.

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