Amid pandemic, Worlds of Work reinvents workforce development efforts
For five years, a tremendous energy buzzed around the National Peanut Festival Fairgrounds in late February.
Hundreds of yellow school buses from more than a dozen counties across three states carried thousands of eighth-graders to the vast southern Dothan property. For some, the visit to the annual Southeast Worlds of Work Career Experience initiated the journey of a lifetime.
As the students funneled past company booth after company booth, they considered which career path they would follow. Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) personnel always set up a demonstration station, exposing the students to the potential of a career in the utilities industry while also teaching valuable safety tips.
As the time came for Southeast Alabama- Works! officials to plan the 2021 event, though, it became evident that the Southeast Worlds of Work expo would look vastly different this year.
“For us to have been able to do it in person, we would have to start planning no later than last September,” says Melanie Hill, Southeast AlabamaWorks! special projects coordinator. “I finally admitted by the end of August that we weren’t going to be able to do it normally. We started having conversations of what it could look like.”
The developments that emerged may have a longer-term impact on local businesses, industries, and future students alike.
“Informing middle and high school students about career options ensures that industries continue to have the labor and skill sets needed to operate effectively,” says WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro. “In turn, students learn about careers that fit their desires — some of which aren’t widely known or as highly visible as others. We applaud Southeast AlabamaWorks! for persevering and delivering an effective product this year.”
“We were pleased to join PowerSouth Energy Cooperative and fellow electric cooperatives in Southeast AlabamaWorks! region to support the continuation of WOW’s good work.”
As a career coach with the Dothan City and Henry County school systems, Amanda Hardy knows Southeast Alabama Worlds of Work serves as an integral part of the area’s workforce development efforts. She said today’s seniors recollect several nuances of the event even though they attended it as eighth-graders four years ago.
“To see students come away excited about careers they have never been exposed to … that hands-on piece makes a huge difference,” she says. “In a normal year, they not only get to hear about the different careers, but they also get to pick up the tools and use them.”
As it became clear officials needed to cancel the 2021 in-person event because of the pandemic, they knew they needed to replace it with something else. Hill says she and Southeast AlabamaWorks! Executive Director Ann Carr gauged how other workforce development councils planned to alter their events. Additionally, Hill and Carr reached out to career coaches around the region, who provided some of the most valuable feedback.
“We had so many calls with career coaches asking what will work for them,” Hill says. Career coaches begged for resources that would present information similar to what previous in-person events provided.
Two critical pieces followed, one of which was a career awareness guide that stemmed from a desire to give students something tangible. The guide allowed students to explore career options in 11 different “worlds,” or industry types.
“They were able to take that home,” Hardy says. “It highlighted each of the industry types that would have been highlighted that year and had statistics like annual salaries and career occupations in those fields.”
Contributions from WEC, PowerSouth, and other cooperatives in the Southeast AlabamaWorks! district made the booklet possible.
The other key development was the revamping of the Southeast Worlds of Work website to a sleeker, modernistic look. The web developer created the reboot after analyzing websites that appeal to younger teenagers.
The website features videos from each of the 11 worlds that participate in Southeast Worlds of Work. PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, WEC’s power provider, created the high-energy clips that promote the utility industry.
“We have fascinating careers available at electric cooperatives that appeal to a broad spectrum of people,” Kimbro says. “Like other industries, a large number of retirements loom in the next decade, creating plenty of opportunities for the next generation.”
Hill says the videos should remain current for several years, and Carr notes the videos and website information can be updated quickly if needed. Since critical information is all online at southeastwow.org, anyone can access it — potentially inspiring people of all ages to pursue a certain set of careers.
Hardy notes the website resonates with today’s teenagers.
“The videos they put together were really helpful — quick and easy and on their level,” she says. “They got introduced to a lot of the business partners and know these are potential employers that are in our area.”
As the pandemic wanes, WOW leaders are already dreaming of what next year’s in-person event can look like. Hill notes educators and students alike are “itching” to have hands-on events and field trips again.
But thanks to the innovation the pandemic spurred, students can have a life-changing experience year-round.
“We thank PowerSouth and member cooperatives like Wiregrass Electric for their continued support of our important work,” Hill says. “This helped us not miss a beat with our workforce development efforts.”
WOW Expands Past Career Fair
In addition to reconfiguring a job fair that reached more than 5,000 students each year, the Southeast Alabama Worlds of Work program has recently expanded its offerings.
This year, the WOW Varsity program planned six job fairs for high school seniors, allowing them the opportunity to prepare resumes and potentially get hired immediately. WOW even sponsored a resume writing contest, awarding a $250 scholarship to a winner from each of the 10 counties it serves. A regional winner earned an additional $1,000 scholarship.
Wiregrass Electric Cooperative and the three other electric cooperatives that serve in the 10-county Southeast region sponsored this new resume-building opportunity, further preparing students for the workforce.
Friend Bank partnered with WOW in recent years to provide budgeting and home ownership lessons to high school students, one example of how industries are helping young people decide on a career path.
“Life skills have to tie into the career piece for them to make sound decisions,” says Amanda Hardy, a career coach with the Dothan City and Henry County school systems. “A lot of it is just trying to educate them about how it is interrelated.”
In the 2020 to 2021 school year, WOW developed a precision measurements unit to implement in area schools, citing industry demand. Wallace Community College Workforce Development Director Joe Johnson and Dothan-area homebuilder Bart Liddon created the exercises for the unit. WOW provided each student with a wooden ruler for the lesson.
“We talked about how precision measurement is important, not just if you are a math teacher,” Hardy says. “You’ve got to know this stuff if you are going to work in building construction to make your structure sound. That will stick with the kids knowing that these things have real-world applications.”