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After starting her college journey almost a decade ago, 35-year-old Lilia Hernandez was excited to finally begin looking for a job as an elementary school teacher. The University of Houston senior expected to kick off her job search upon return from spring break, when the school’s college of education typically holds its annual spring career fair that draws recruiters from school districts throughout the Houston area. Then the pandemic forced the university to move classes online. Rather than canceling the career fair, the college switched it to a virtual format. “At first I was like: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’” said Hernandez, who chose the University of Houston in part because of its well-known, in-person career fair that she’d heard sometimes hires candidates on-site. She decided to register for the virtual job fair anyway. Hernandez is among countless college seniors facing an abrupt disruption to their job search, in which career fairs typically play a big role. By mid-March, an estimated 95 percent of the nation’s education career fairs had been canceled, according to the American Association of School Personnel Administrators. Soon after, restrictions on large gatherings canceled any remaining ones. Virtual career fairs--some previously planned and others organized on the fly--have enabled job seekers to continue to connect with recruiters.
Meeting a Need
The Houston Area Teacher Center Conference and Job Fair is one of Amber Thompson’s favorite professional days of the year.
“There are so many district personnel there; they all come together for a common purpose,” said Thompson, the director of teacher education at the University of Houston.
That purpose is to facilitate the hiring of an estimated 600 student-teachers into classroom jobs throughout the Houston area’s school districts. When the annual conference and career fair scheduled for March 27 had to be canceled, Thompson quickly pivoted.
Thompson considered the primary objectives of a career fair—handing someone your resume and giving a quick elevator speech. Then she pursued a plan for a virtual substitute.
By March 28, the college of education's ongoing virtual career fair had opened. Via Google Drive, students uploaded their resumes to folders that coincided with districts where they were interested in applying. The candidates also created brief videos using Flipgrid, a free Microsoft product. These included brief introductions and explanations of why they want to become a teacher and what drew them to that particular school district. After perusing candidates’ resumes and videos, representatives of school districts could contact the candidates via email or phone.
“Getting to see someone, even though it’s short, is so much better than just looking at a resume,” Thompson said. Many school districts agreed, judging by an abundance of positive emails and texts Thompson received from participating districts.
The university-sponsored virtual career fair will stay open as long as districts need it, says Thompson. “This is a really hot time for hiring. But there’s also movement in the summer and, when it’s all said and done, sometimes there are still openings in September,” she observed.
Jumping On Virtual Fair Opportunities
The Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township, an Indianapolis-area district, typically attends several area career fairs in the spring. As each of the planned in-person career fairs canceled, Carla Johnson, the district’s chief of human resources, kept an eye out for alternatives. She found one through Butler University, which held a virtual career fair on April 10.
“Butler got out ahead of it,” said Johnson who, along with three other administrators from the district, participated in the virtual job fair.
Johnson described the experience as a success on both ends. Candidates interested in her district sent her emails with their availability and resumes. In turn, she accepted invitations for video conference interviews via Zoom, ultimately interviewing several candidates.
Johnson used the virtual interviews as an opportunity to get to know the candidates, share information about the district and its opportunities, and provide some mentoring. “I found out what their dream job would be, and had them tell me a highlight of their student teaching,” Johnson said.
She also put a positive spin on the current ambiguous situation, suggesting to candidates that student teaching experiences, including with virtual instruction, would make an excellent story to share with potential employers.
Other Virtual Job Fairs
Other organizations are turning to virtual career fairs, too. The nonprofit American Association for Employment in Education (AAEE) had been planning an in-person teacher job fair for June. But AAEE Executive Director Tim Neubert saw the country shutting down indefinitely.
Knowing the organization’s members—universities and school districts—rely on spring career fairs, AAEE decided to host a one-day virtual career fair April 23. It included 1,409 job candidates and 116 recruiter booths from 30 states. It’s the nonprofit’s second time hosting a virtual job fair. The first, held two years ago and targeting the Mid-Atlantic region, drew 100 candidates.
Given the mediocre response to their first one, Neubert said AAEE wasn’t in a hurry to host additional virtual job fairs. But that was before the pandemic hit. This time, says Neubert, the nonprofit prepared differently, including providing FAQs for districts and candidates in advance, using a more cost-effective platform vendor, and marketing the event more broadly.
While some organizations have tread warily into the virtual career fair realm, others have found it a booming success. Education Week (EW) Top School Jobs, in its seventh year hosting virtual career fairs, held its most recent one March 26. EW TopSchoolJobs capped registration at 6,500 participants and, at the last minute, added a second simultaneously held event to accommodate unprecedented demand. EW TopSchoolJobs’ next virtual career fair, aptly called Last Chance, will be held in late July.
The growing number of virtual job fairs this season has allowed the recruitment process to continue moving forward, improving future prospects for both recruiters and teaching candidates like University of Houston senior Hernandez.
“I don’t have any doubts, especially with this job fair,” said Hernandez, when asked about her job prospects. Within days of posting her video to the college of education’s virtual job fair, a district reached out to her for an interview.