Employers Called to Engage with Students at JA Inspire

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — At last year’s JA Inspire College, Career and Trades conference at the Eastwood Mall Complex, colleges and employers met with some 3,000 middle and high school students.

This year, that number will be more than 10,000.

That’s because the one-day event will be held virtually via an online platform. Hosted by Junior Achievement of Mahoning Valley, the event is scheduled for Nov. 19 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will use the vFairs event platform.

Also new for this year, the event includes students from Mahoning and Trumbull counties, says Michele Merkel, president of Junior Achievement Mahoning Valley. After the success of last year’s event, which was held in partnership with the Trumbull County Educational Service Center, Merkel was approached by the Mahoning County Educational Service Center to host a similar event in spring 2021, she says.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to cancel in-person field trips and events, however, a new plan was needed, Merkel says.

“We knew that we had to find an alternate program to still meet the career advising mandate and to work with the Mahoning County Educational Service Center and the Trumbull County Educational Service Center,” she says.

Both ESCs are handling registration for the students. Parents can also attend, but must register through Junior Achievement. Click HERE to register.

Merkel hopes more employers will take advantage of the opportunity to engage area students with the event. Anyone interested in being an exhibitor can contact Junior Achievement at MahoningValley.JA.org. Or call the office at 330 539 5268. There is a sponsorship fee of $250.

“All these wonderful jobs that we have, opportunities here in the Mahoning Valley, we have to share it with our youth,” she says. “They have to be aware of what is here and available for them in the Mahoning Valley.”

Equally important is communicating to students what is expected of them as qualified employees, she adds. Having employers who engage the students and share that information makes “a huge difference,” she says.

“We have seen this impact. We have moved the meter,” she says. “We have thousands and thousands of students that we serve annually and we do alumni reports. And they say time and time again, it was their experience in Junior Achievement, their connection to their volunteer, that made a difference of where they are now.”

Through the JA USA national organization, Junior Achievement Mahoning Valley gained access to the vFairs virtual event platform. During the first portion of the event from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., students can meet virtually with exhibitors to learn about area jobs and what the employers are looking for in an employee. A host of presenters and speakers will conduct live webinars, Merkel says.

Over the last few years, the Mahoning County ESC has made efforts to bring employers into the schools to meet with students. The pandemic changed that, however, so now “we’re starting to bring the students to them,” says Rob Eggleston, lead career counselor for the ESC.

“The kids want to see them,” Eggleston says. “Kids are now starting to ask about these things. They’re anxious to learn. They’re anxious to explore.”

The ESC looks to register some 10,000 students for the event, who will drop in throughout the day, he says. Students will come from schools served by the ESC in Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana and Portage counties.

Flexibility is key for events like this, he says. Since it’s being held during a school day, the virtual nature of the event will allow students to work with their class schedules to log on and off.

“They’re going to be able to jump on and off this as the school day allows,” he says. “Students that are on the hybrid learning, or those who are completely at home, are going to be able to partake in this as well.”

From 2 to 6 p.m., students can log in again with their families. The vFairs platform also allows registrants to access the recorded materials for 90 days after the event, giving teachers, parents and other students an opportunity to review webinars and information from exhibitor booths, she says.

Upon entering the platform, participants start in a virtual “lobby.” Junior Achievement is working to design the platform to look like the Mahoning Valley, she says, including graphics of the familiar skylines and businesses so the students can relate.

Eleven speakers are scheduled for live webinars every half hour, including Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel and Jeff Leo Herrmann, CEO of The Youngstown Publishing Co. Speakers will cover topics ranging from financial aid and preparing for college to financial literacy and work readiness and soft skills.

With many career paths to follow, Herrmann says it’s important for employers to help students start to think about what’s a good fit for them.

“It’s important that we adapt and grow through this pandemic,” Herrmann says. “Even though many are stuck at home on Zoom calls, our kids are still growing and it’s important that businesses do their best to intrigue and inspire them. To encourage their growth and development. And to help them see the range of possibilities ahead.”

Students can engage with the presenters and ask questions via chat. “We can have 5,000 students on a webinar with that live speaker at one time,” Merkel says. There will also be a moderator to handle questions.

Exhibitor booths are divided into three halls: colleges and universities, skilled trades and local employers. Attendees can visit any of the virtual booths and live chat with exhibitors. “Most of them will be available to have a chat with the students,” she says.

Using virtual “backpacks,” students can download and collect information such as videos and other deliverables on career and job opportunities. Throughout the event, resources will also be available for parents, educators and students on entrepreneurship, financial literacy and work readiness.

Another benefit to the virtual program is that students have the freedom to explore as they see fit, Eggleston adds. So, if a student isn’t interested in a particular speaker, he can still explore the virtual lobby and meet with employers.

“Students have the freedom to choose what they like to go see,” he says. “They have their own interests. It’s an awesome way to do it instead of forcing them to listen to careers they’re not interested in.”

It also gives them a sense of anonymity, unlike in-person events where they might experience peer pressure about certain jobs. Students can feel free to explore certain careers without feeling compelled to only see the jobs their friends are looking at, he says.

A virtual scavenger hunt lets students earn points by seeking out icons throughout the event, she adds. The game benefits educators, ESCs and exhibitors, because it reports student numbers for exhibitor booth visits and webinar attendance, she says.

“So there is a good evaluation ROI that we can provide to our sponsors and our partners,” she says.

Naturally, one-on-one interaction is ideal for events like this, Merkel allows. But a pandemic shouldn’t prevent connecting students with career exploration opportunities, which increases a student’s knowledge about careers and preparedness for entering the workforce, she says.

“We’re not going to stop servicing students. We’re not going to stop providing important financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship programs,” she says. “We’re just going to deliver it a different way.”

And the event provides an opportunity for all involved to see the benefits of a virtual platform, she notes. As the pandemic forces people to consider how to further implement technology in their business, knowing how to use it will be imperative for the current and future workforce.

“I have been able to connect with more people throughout my day through a Zoom meeting than getting in the car and driving an hour up to Ashtabula, or an hour to Columbiana to have a meeting,” she says. “I can meet with four or five people within that hour and get things done.”

Junior Achievement looks to host additional events through 2021 using the vFairs platform, including JA Inspire, Financial Starting Points and JA Titan, she says.

And all in-classroom programs delivered by volunteers are already being held virtually. All the lessons are converted for some 80 programs offered by the organization in a variety of virtual formats: Remote volunteer in classroom, videos recorded by volunteers presenting the lessons, a mixture of both, or teachers delivering a portion of the curriculum.

“There’s so many options now that we have, we leave it up to the educators in the schools and the school districts to decide what’s best for their students,” she says.

For additional sponsorship and exhibitor information, contact Junior Achievement at 330 539 5268 or infojamv@ja.org.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.