Leaders from across Jackson County today took a moment to celebrate what they consider to be a milestone in helping people develop workplace skills and connect them to good jobs.

“This says Jackson County is open for business and people matter,” said Mardy Leathers, Missouri’s director of workforce development. He added that Gov. Mike Parson has said his two highest priorities are fixing the state’s roads and bridges and developing a workforce able to meet the ever-changing demands of the modern economy.

Leathers spoke at a gathering of officials who have worked to have Jackson County certified as a Work Ready Community. About two-thirds of the counties in Missouri have earned that certification.

The program rests on testing by ACT, the company well known for its college-entrance exam. It has developed an assessment called WorkKeys, measuring a student or employee’s ability in areas such as applied math, graphic literacy and workplace documents.

That gives an employer a clearer picture of a job candidate’s abilities, and officials say WorkKeys has proven to cut turnover, cut the time it takes to hire and train, and improve productivity.

“The ACT is a common framework to determine the qualities that persons need,” said Clyde McQueen, CEO of the Full Employment Council.

Counties qualify by getting a certain number of employers to sign on, more than 200 in Jackson County’s case. Jackson County started several years ago, but the efforts of the Independence and Blue Springs Chambers of Commerce in recent years got the county over the goal line.

McQueen said this is part of efforts by communities to develop and hang on to a resilient local workforce. He cited the example of the hundreds of people thrown out of work when the Harley-Davidson plant in Kansas City closed. He said the effort to retrain those people -- and keep them here -- was largely successful.

“... we’re focusing on growing our own -- growing our own workforce …” he said.

Leathers said low unemployment is forecast for many years ahead, meaning employers will continue to scramble for the talent they need.

“That’s a crisis,” he said.

He added, “And employers are going to have to continue to be engaged.”

McQueen singled out the efforts of Independence Chamber of Commerce Vice President Jodi Krantz and Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce President Lara Vermillion for their efforts to get Jackson County companies to support the program.

“I can tell y’all that but for them we would not be here,” he said.

Officials enjoyed their brief moment of celebration this morning, but McQueen stressed that markets are continually changing so employers and employees must as well.

“This is not the end,” he said. “This is a beginning.”