JA Sees Virtual Event Platform as Brain Gain Tool

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – After three months of planning, the inaugural JA Inspire Virtual event Nov. 19 received positive marks from participants, educators and businesses.

And with more time, Michele Merkel, president of Junior Achievement of Mahoning Valley, says the virtual platform can be developed even further to benefit workforce development and encourage entrepreneurship among students in the region.

The college and career exploration event is typically held in person; last year, it drew more than 3,000 students to the Eastwood Mall Complex. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, Junior Achievement opted for a virtual format in collaboration with the Mahoning and Trumbull county educational service centers.

Merkel is pleased with the first JA Inspire Virtual. She says, however, future virtual events will supplement, not supplant, in-person college and career fairs. To that end, she hopes to court more exhibitors for future events and says those who participated are seeing the benefits of having on-demand videos and downloadable content available to students in the virtual, explorable format, she says.

For now, teachers and students can access content from the daylong event for the next 90 days by logging in at JAMVInspire.vfairs.com. Because some schools are going fully remote as COVID-19 cases spike, not all of the 7,000 students who registered could log on the day of the event. 

However, those teachers have already designed remote lesson plans to include the archived webinars and downloadable videos and documents from 55 virtual exhibitor booths, Merkel says. This will help those classes meet the career advisory mandate the state set, she says.

“This will be considered career exploration. It also allows them to have access to a career speaker series,” Merkel says.

And the content isn’t limited to what was there the day of the event. Junior Achievement can add exhibitor booths and webinars as needed.

Upon entering the virtual “hall,” participants chose among several options in the lobby, including exhibit halls, an auditorium, help desk and resource center, which featured a database of downloadable material provided by Junior Achievement and some of the exhibitors. Any downloaded content was collected in a student’s “backpack” for later review.

Exhibitor booths and webinars streamed inside the virtual auditorium were the most active areas during the event. Students freely explored areas by clicking where they wanted to go.

For Payne Allen, a senior at Beaver Local High School, that made the virtual event “a very good alternative” to a typical, in-person college fair, he says. After high school, Allen plans to study business or criminal justice in college.

The virtual experience allowed him to explore those options on his own terms. During a typical fair, he says, he’d be more inclined to stay with his friends.

“It’s easier to go do your own thing and care more about what you think than what a bunch of other people think,” Allen says.

The virtual format also allowed students to ask more in-depth questions through chat and do more on-the-spot research on a college or employer with websites just one click away, he says. While he plans to attend college, videos from Universal Technical Institute showing the typical day for students there were interesting, he says.

“It’s more for hands-on people and someone that learns different than just sitting in a class and getting books and stuff like that,” he says.

His classmate Colton Dugan used the event as an opportunity to dig deeper into his aspirations to study finance in college. The Beaver Local senior says he explored several career tracks at the finance industry booth.

“Even though it was virtual, it still showed how many colleges and career opportunities there are,” Dugan says. “There’s many more career options than I thought.”

Webinars on financial aid and financial literacy got Dugan to think more about how to pay for college as well, he says. Before the seminar, “I really wasn’t too sure about how it worked or what it might cost. And the website helped that a little bit,” he says. Dugan also plans to talk with his parents about how to pay for tuition, he says.

Allen agrees and says he walked away with insights on how to reduce tuition costs through early applications and pre-application scholarships.

Bethanne Rettos, a guidance counselor at Beaver Local, says she appreciated the variety of information shared. Typically, the guidance office conducts meetings and information-sharing sessions with seniors about FAFSA and early applications. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, those meetings can’t be held.

“This is one of the very first things that we’ve been able to do because most things we haven’t figured out how to do remotely yet,” she says. “So we’re extremely grateful that JA and Mahoning County [Educational Service Center] were able and willing to step out on a limb and do this for us.”

Other topics covered included entrepreneurship, marketing, tuition and the college experience.

Still, the virtual platform didn’t allow as much one-on-one interaction with employers as an in-person experience, Payne Allen says. He suggests more opportunities to have one-on-one Zoom chats with presenters.

Christopher Allen, the North American talent acquisition manager for Vallourec USA Corp., agrees. He was a presenter and monitored the Vallourec booth’s chat function as much as he could throughout the day.

While the virtual experience is giving Allen ideas on how to make his in-person booths more engaging, he says career fairs still need to be done in person when the pandemic is over.

During his presentation, he discussed soft skills that students need to be employable, and “every year it gets worse and worse.” In-person college and career fairs give students an opportunity to get comfortable speaking with new people “because they’re not getting it in their daily routines anymore,” he says.

Still, he sees the value in having a virtual experience and customizing an exhibitor booth with videos and downloadable “swag.”

“It’s kind of nice to be able to set that up and students can go in and they’re not under any pressure to go up to anybody,” Allen says. Students reaching out via chat asked good questions too, he adds.

Allen lauded Junior Achievement for organizing a virtual college and career event amid the pandemic because it’s beneficial for high school students to get the information before they graduate, he says.

“We still need to give them every opportunity to get that info,” he says. “This was a great platform to do that with.”

Pictured: Seniors Colton Dugan and Payne Allen of Beaver Local High School were among the 7,000 students who attended the JA Inspire Virtual event Nov. 19.