Iowa community colleges and Iowa City-based ACT Inc. announced an initiative Thursday to help Iowa's advanced manufacturing businesses gauge the skills of their current workers as well as potential employees.

Under the initiative, manufacturers will be able to give their employees the ACT National Career Ready Certificate (NCRC) test to measure their "soft skills," such as reading, finding information and problem solving, at no cost.

ACT will provide the tests and use Iowa's 15 community colleges and their connections with local businesses to distribute the tests to eligible local manufacturers.

The partnership, called the Iowa Advanced Manufacturing Consortium (I-AM), is funded through a $13 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, and ACT's involvement is part of its national Tomorrow's Workforce Now program.

"I think that anything a business can do to learn more about the quality of itsr own workforce and the applicants who want jobs, the better hiring decisions we can make," said Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC).

Denson said ACT approached DMACC and Kirkwood Community College about two years ago to be part of a program to help businesses benchmark their employees. Officials from those two colleges thought it would be worthwhile to bring in all of the state's 15 community colleges.

The initiative is being touted as a way to improve the advanced manufacturing workforce in the state, although Denson points out that the tests can be used effectively across multiple sectors, including finance, information technology and biotechnology. Gov. Terry Branstad's Skilled Iowa Initiative also allows any Iowa resident to take the test at no cost.

Denson has actually taken the assessment, which offers platinum, gold, silver and bronze certifications. The DMACC president missed platinum certification by one point, settling for gold. In the process, he left impressed with the quality of the test.

"I think that a company who had that type of information on its own employees and on candidates coming in would really have a pretty good amount of information to add to whatever criteria they use to select workers," Denson said.

Des Moines area companies interested in being part of the program are asked to contact DMACC's Renee Miller by May 15. Miller can be reached at 964-6630 or by email at rlmiller13@dmac.edu.