Workforce development event returns, expands
Southeast AlabamaWorks’ hallmark program, Southeast Worlds of Work, returned in March after a yearlong hiatus and with several improvements that could shape the region’s future.
The interactive career fair was originally intended to help eighth-graders determine their occupational goals and chart the high school courses needed to accomplish them. Now, high school juniors are also attending in an effort to deepen their exposure to occupational opportunities.
Worlds of Work also began as a singular event catering to schools in 11 different counties at Dothan’s National Peanut Festival Fairgrounds. In 2022, Southeast AlabamaWorks officials added a second event in Andalusia, increasing the program’s reach.
Wiregrass Electric Cooperative, a longtime supporter of Southeast AlabamaWorks, once again participated in the Dothan event, and some students from WEC-served communities attended the Andalusia session. WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro says the changes should better serve the region’s workforce development efforts for years to come.
“Many businesses have struggled to identify and retain worthy employees in recent years,” he says. “By exposing the students to the world of opportunities again as juniors, Southeast Worlds of Work may inspire more students to decide a career path as they near graduation. This could help the labor supply issue in the near future.
“Furthermore, adding another event ensures more businesses and students have an opportunity to participate in this wonderful effort."
Southeast AlabamaWorks Executive Director Ann Carr says officials planned to add a second event in 2021 to better serve the western side of its district. The coronavirus pandemic caused organizers to cancel the in-person event and create alternative ways to implement the program.
The organization created a video series and developed some interactive toolkits for area schools, but officials longed for the day to join every school and participating business together again.
“COVID-19 really cramped the real vision of what this program’s about,” Carr says. “There are only so many videos you can watch and interactive tools you can do. Some of the kids are walking away and saying this is one of the best days they’ve had. Some are talking about careers they want to pick and colleges they want to go to.”
Planning one Worlds of Work event is an extensive undertaking, considering more than 80 businesses and thousands of students attended each event. Adding a second event not only increased the workload but provided some scheduling complexities.
The result: both the Andalusia and Dothan events occurred in consecutive weeks.
“That was a bit of a crunch, especially for our world operators — our businesses who opt to be here. They have to take time away from their normal business operations to do this,” Carr says.
A team of longtime volunteers, including some from WEC, ensured both events operated efficiently. Carr says feedback from both students and businesses validated the decision to expand to two events.
“The kids are getting more time to spend with each of the companies and put their hands on things, whereas before they had to rush through,” she says. “By the same token, the vendors are getting to spend more time with students and really have an impact.
“Seeing the kids not having to rush, not having to fight for attention with the companies — that says it all. It’s all worth the blood, sweat and tears and tense sleepless nights.”
Not only did officials opt to expand Worlds of Work into two events, they bolstered the program by including high school juniors who participate in career-technical classes. Carr says her team hopes to include all high school juniors in next year’s event.
Adding the older students allows officials to reinforce lessons and opportunities first presented to area students when they were three years younger. It also provides a gauge into the program’s effectiveness.
Several juniors who attended this year’s event had fond memories of the Worlds of Work they attended as eighth graders.
“There were so many different things, especially in the electrical industry,” Geneva County High School student Emily Hamm says. “It was very hands-on, very interactive and fun.”
But Hamm and her friends Alyssa Sellers and Kirah Lawson represent why expansion of Worlds of Work to juniors will be beneficial.
Hamm wasn’t sure of her career preference in March. And while Lawson wants to pursue a career in the medical field, she attended this year’s event to explore where that might lead her.
Sellers was fascinated with a computer demonstration but wanted to learn more about the utilities industries.
“I hope to learn more about the power lines because you see those everywhere,” she says. “I think it’s really fascinating.”
That is a trend noticed in recent years by Johnny Hudson, a working foreman of one of WEC’s linemen crews. After several Worlds of Work visits and many of WEC’s Education Power Station demonstrations at area schools, Hudson has noticed more students have gained an interest in the electrical sector.
“When we ask questions at the schools, they’ll already know the answers because they learned them here — or vice versa,” he says. “They pick up on the information well.”
Hudson says the Education Power Station demonstrations differ from the display set up by WEC employees at Worlds of Work. While the Education Power Station — which has a variety of electrical equipment attached to a trailer — is used only for discussions, students can interact with the tools and equipment on display at Worlds of Work.
“We’re flexible with this setup. We’ll put some new things in here and there and change it up occasionally,” Hudson says. “We find out what the kids like to do and keep that stuff.”
“Seeing everything explained to us and how everything works is pretty cool,” Sellers notes.
Carr notes the revamped Worlds of Work created some unanticipated benefits.
For one, almost every business brought more personnel to this year’s event. This allowed for even more interaction between industry leaders and students.
Additionally, local community college students served as tour guides through the sprawling National Peanut Festival complex. This placed students close to entering the workforce in front of business leaders potentially looking for help.
“We’ve actually seen them interacting with some of the world vendors and realizing the degree they are getting is useful at certain companies,” Carr says.
These developments and others help satisfy Carr and those in her organization.
“One event is a lot of work, but we’ve all seen the value of having two different events,” she says. “At the end of the day, this is what we’re paid to do: connect businesses with students. It’s been awesome.”