By Kelly McCandless

Today’s job market is changing rapidly. Low unemployment combined with high rates of retirement means the talent pool is shallow and employers need skilled employees – now. Combine that need with the trend of preparing students primarily for college instead of careers and the problem becomes more complex. As a society we now must address immediate workforce shortages and activate a paradigm shift within our school districts encouraging students to pursue both career pathways and college or post-secondary training.

The landscape outlined above applies at the national level, and is a very real and current problem in Yellowstone County. According to the 2018 BillingsWorks State of the Workforce Report, there were 2,745 individuals completing their education and ready to enter the workforce (any workforce – not just Yellowstone County’s) following the 2016-2017 school year. The report also details 4,966 anticipated job openings resulting from retirements and economic growth. When you combine that data, the bottom line is that even if we kept every individual completing his/her education in Yellowstone County (which we won’t), we would still have a gap of 2,221 positions remaining open simply due to talent shortage.

Businesses can’t grow if they can’t hire, meaning employers are getting creative in how they recruit. Thus, the Let’s Get to Work Job Fair was born. A group of area employers acutely aware of these issues partnered with School District 2, Billings Catholic Schools, Job Service and others to create the first job fair directly targeting high school seniors throughout Yellowstone County. The purpose was to connect students with summer jobs, internships, job shadows and general career information while also bringing the employers out to directly recruit, educate and connect with students nearing the end of their high school careers.

The results are pretty telling. In its inaugural year, the event hosted more than 100 local, regional and national employers, entertaining an active waiting list and interest for the next time the event is hosted. Additionally, more than 700 high school seniors from throughout Yellowstone County attended. Employers handed out applications, scheduled job shadows, offered internships, and more. But what does this really mean for all involved?

Gabriella and Community 7

Our first success story is about Gabriella, a senior at Senior High who job shadowed with Kayla at Community 7. Gabriella is planning to attend the University of Hawaii to major in creative media – a career she believed did not exist in Billings. At the career fair, she saw the Community 7 booth and became interested in the possibilities.

Gabriella went home and researched Community 7, then took the initiative and contacted Kayla about a possible job shadow. Gabriella completed her second job shadow last week and has had an opportunity to work on the technical and creative aspects of media. She shared this has helped her know she is on the right path and she feels even more confident in going into creative media now. What’s more, Gabriella is part of the University Connections program, meaning she has just one required class at Senior this semester and is earning college credit for her other courses at MSU Billings. It also means she had time and support to do the job shadows.

Kayla reported success from the Let’s Get to Work Job Fair. They had 40 students sign up as interested in learning more about volunteering or other opportunities at Community 7.  She was impressed by Gabriella’s initiative and has enjoyed the job shadow experience.

Sysco Connects with Students

Christopher Gomez, the HR Business Partner for Sysco Montana, was a key driver on the Let’s Get to Work Job Fair committee. And, based on their results, his initiative will pay off for the organization.

Following the event, Sysco interviewed 20 students and has hired 10 of them. These students will be starting at $18.38 per hour and will work part-time in warehouse order/selector positions. This allows the students to go through a training period in which they might work 5 to 6 hours a few nights a week after school. The part-time work offers a competitive wage and a terrific opportunity to work through the summer earning money as well as to prepare them for the busy summer at Sysco.

If the relationship and student performance turn out to be a positive experience for both, Chris envisions students coming back the following summer to work. For students who find working for Sysco a good fit for them, they can move into full time positions. For those, Sysco provides career progression and will sponsor employees to attend Sage Trucking School and will pay for an employee to get their Class A driving license once they turn 21. Prior to that, these students will work in the warehouse at the competitive wage and continue learning the organization.

RiverStone Health and Curriculum Alignment

Our final success story comes from Nikole Bakko from RiverStone Health. Nikole hired one PRN/CNA at their Hospice House as a result of the Let’s Get to Work Job Fair. The reason this student got their attention relates directly to the curriculum she’s had access to through the Career Center. According to Nikole, the students’ work in MedCareers with Katie Meier, her network exploration through Inspire Billings and the contacts made during the Job Fair yielded the results. She was encouraged to apply, received an interview and was successfully hired – all before graduating high school.

The Future of Let’s Get to Work

The committee behind the Let’s Get to Work Job Fair is continuing to hear about successes from the event. Student and employer surveys were conducted immediately following the event, and will be repeated in a few months to determine long-term impacts. What’s more, the Career and Technical Education office with School District 2 calls every 2019 graduate in the fall to survey their next steps – a process which will further inform the results of this event.

As the feedback trickles in, workforce demands continue throughout the community. The Let’s Get to Work committee will begin planning for the second annual Job Fair in the coming months. More information will be shared soon.