Mary McNamara owns and runs Cornell Roofing & Sheet Metal in Independence, with 75 employees. She says she could do 50 percent more business than she currently has.

“But I don’t have the workforce,” she said.

Last year, she took on more work and added 40 people for the summer. It’s hard work, she says, but it pays well and comes with union benefits.

Only five of those workers made it to the end of the summer. She says it’s mostly a matter of screening to find the people with the skills and most likely to do well in the workplace.

“We have got to have a trained construction workforce that can get the job done …” she said.

Help could be on the way. Jackson County officials and others are working to get the county certified in the Work Ready Communities program. The centerpiece of it is the WorkKeys test developed by ACT – the college-prep test company – to assess how well workers can apply math, read and process information, and function in the workplace.

“The bottom line is demonstrating readiness,” said Mark Allen, a former entrepreneur and economic development consultant in Kansas City and now senior director of workforce for ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa. He spoke Tuesday to about 30 people – business owners, school district officials, economic development officials – at a meeting convened by the the Independence Economic Development Council.

WorkKeys is a three-hour test, much like the ACT that college-bound students take. Most area high schools offer it. Individuals also can take it at any Missouri Job Center, and the state covers the cost. The job center in Eastern Jackson County is at 15301 E. 23rd St. Call ahead: 816-521-5700.

Those who complete WorkKeys assessments in three areas – graphic literacy, applied math and workplace documents – earn the National Career Readiness Certificate. It’s a credential telling employers about a baseline of skills.

“It’s kind of like a merit badge. Young people understand it. Parents understand it,” said Clyde McQueen, president and CEO of the Full Employment Council in Kansas City.

He said the FEC surveyed more than 200 employers in Eastern Jackson County last year and found that three-quarters of their jobs do not require a four-year degree or certification. Opportunities abound, and that point needs to be driven home to parents and young people, he said.

Allen agreed, pointing to acute shortages of roofers and plumbers, for example.

The idea of the program is to target various workers: those out of the workforce, those ready for work after after high school or college, veterans making the transition to civilian life, and those with jobs and looking to move up.

“A lot of people in the current workforce have found that they want something better, even within their own company,” he said.

Nationally, Allen said, the cost of training a new worker on a U.S. factory floor is $17,000. McNamara said that is roughly her cost as well.

“And every time you turn somebody, it’s another 17K,” Allen said. “So retention is important.”

It’s also important, he said, to show big companies the measurable and certificated skills of the workforce and keep those jobs in the U.S.

“The overall effect is economic development,” he said.

To get Work Readiness certification from the state, Jackson County needs 181 companies to sign up and support the program. At the moment, it has 26, though much of the other needed work is done. So officials had Tuesday’s meeting to raise awareness, and others are planned.