Technology has transformed much of how we do the business of school. For example, in the current era of teacher shortages, school districts have been forced to become more innovative in their recruitment strategies, virtual interviews are now a norm, and we are at the initial stages of hosting virtual career fairs for educators. However, there are some areas in which we continue to lag behind. Despite our current move toward technology in many aspects of our students’ school day, we continue to limit ourselves to the “tried and true” in areas such as student career exploration days.

For years, elementary, middle, and high schools have held traditional career fairs, most often hosting local community helpers to share their jobs with students. Creedmoor Elementary School of the Arts in the rural district of Granville County Schools, NC, used a “science fair” approach with local presenters (e.g., hairdressers, police officers, and firefighters) positioned at tables throughout the cafeteria, and students visited each table with guidance counselor-prepared questions for 10-minute segments. As the participants reflected on the experience, they realized few questions had been asked, and students did not take away any new learning.

Taking a Risk

This year, the school decided to take a risk, giving itself permission to fail forward on behalf of its students’ needs. As leader of an art-based A+ School that is also a state-designated low-performing school, Principal Nancy Russell decided to better align the career fair with her school’s arts vision. She also determined it was time to expose students to careers beyond their rural boundaries, opening their eyes to opportunities that may not have existed when she was a student and that teachers may not have recognized as possibilities for their students. She realized that this presented an ideal opportunity to utilize technology with her students in a new and innovative way. With the support of their guidance counselor and school transformation coach, Russell took a leap of faith.

After intentionally recruiting individuals with diverse career paths—with an additional focus on cultural diversity in order to assure that presenters were representative of the demographics of the student body—the school presented students with biographies of the career presenters. After reading through them, students then self-selected their career interests via a Google Forms survey, developed targeted questions for their sessions, and were scheduled to attend five 25-minute presentations. Letters were sent to presenters with an agenda and topics they should plan to cover, as well as logistical details. 

Implementing the Vision 

The fair began with virtual interactions. In one classroom, a production manager for King Games presented from his innovative office space in Stockholm. Students enraptured with Candy Crush learned about the game-creation process, the world of competitive game-making, the art and creativity involved in game development, the very real possibilities of working abroad, and the skills they are currently acquiring in school that will support them in the field. The students were thrilled to learn that you can create your own work hours in some jobs. They were also fascinated to learn about the benefits and features of King Games’ unique work environment, which offers alternative office spaces, breakfast, video-game rooms, and nap rooms. 

Simultaneously, a theater teacher in the Chicago area, who is also a former professional dancer and children’s book author, shared her love of the arts and answered questions about writing and publishing. She also talked about the multiple genres of dance and career options in the field, and shared ways students could turn their passions into actual careers. Again, she emphasized the application of the skills and behaviors students are currently learning and how they specifically relate to the arts.

Next door, a member of the women’s World Cup rugby team connected with students from her training center in California. A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, she was able to explain college athletic scholarships and address the values of commitment and drive in both academics and life.

Finding Their True Passion

Across the hall, a music producer in Los Angeles discussed his studio work with Patti LaBelle, T-Pain, and other artists; his international tour with Anthony Hamilton; and his personal obsession with music. A former middle school music teacher and current church musician, he spoke of the path that he selected to get him to his current career, including his educational experience at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He encouraged students to remain true to their passions while they intentionally plan the pathway to get themselves there.

An entrepreneur appeared from Houston, discussing her transition from education to business. When students asked her how much money she made, she returned the question and asked them to calculate her earnings, explaining she charges $175 per hour and has a current client on board for 20 hours. She spoke of her work with multiple clients and posed the question of her earnings should she serve five clients for 20 hours each, demonstrating the financial potential of owning your own business. Students eagerly did the calculations and started declaring themselves future entrepreneurs immediately and brainstorming their options. 

On-site presenters began in the afternoon, and many were focused on their local rural community and outlined more “traditional”—yet important—career options: a chef, a veterinary technician, and a police officer, among others.

The Under Armour Connection

However, the standout on-site presenter introduced students to a career path they were unaware existed. A team sports territory manager for Under Armour immediately engaged students as he discussed how he turned his lifetime obsession with sports into a career he loves, working for a company whose mission he fully supports. Part of his presentation included a demonstration of Under Armour’s storm technology gear. He clothed a volunteer in the sweatshirt and proceeded to pour a cup of water over the student’s head while the class watched in awe as the water beaded off. As he did so, he emphasized the value in showing over telling and his company’s focus on the “why” of their work, which aligned perfectly with the school’s writing curriculum. 

While students asked questions about the products and his work, he was able to share his adolescent fascination with designing and drawing team uniforms, leading them to discussions of additional career opportunities within his company. He shared the extensive hours he puts into his job, his work ethic, as well as the challenges he has encountered along the way. As he talked, the classroom teacher vigorously tried to capture all that he was saying in order to remind the kids of his words in later weeks. After the event, she confided her initial lack of enthusiasm for the event, given the time of year and previous disappointing career fair experiences. She teared up saying that she had goosebumps listening to the day’s speakers and ended the day unexpectedly re-energized.

At the conclusion of the fair, Russell held a reception for on-site presenters. As students were dismissed and headed to their buses and parents, they initiated conversations with each other about the possibility of living in another country, making music, designing video games for a living, writing books, and building their own businesses. Mid-conversation, a group of fourth- and fifth-grade students rushed the Under Armour speaker, asking for his autograph. As one young man headed out the door, he shouted at the same presenter, “I’m going to work harder from now on!” At that moment, the potential power and influence of just 25 minutes of a student’s time was felt by everyone. 

“This experience proved beneficial and extremely informative for youngsters who were exposed,” says Granville County Schools Superintendent Alisa McLean of the pilot career fair. “It is my hope that this work will continue, as it affords a clever way to merge technology and exposure to some really neat individuals.” 

Although this transition to a nontraditional fair was initially overwhelming for staff to consider, their well-planned, blended approach of on-site and virtual presenters allowed them to ease into the new model, making it a huge success students will remember well into their college years.  

Laurie Carr serves as a school/district leadership coach for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s division of Educator Support Services.

Making It Work

Follow these tips for revamping a career fair at your school:

  • Align your career day with your school’s mission, vision, and demographics. For example, if you are a STEAM school, plan to have representatives from a variety of STEAM professions and ensure that your presenters reflect your student body.
  • Engage your community in identifying presenters. Everyone has connections, and with this model, they no longer have to be local.
  • Provide your students options and prepare them. Present bios to students in advance, survey their top choices for scheduling, and provide them time to prepare thoughtful questions in advance.
  • Take it slowly. Assess where you are in order to determine whether to take a blended approach or move to an entirely virtual experience.