BRATTLEBORO—Job seekers, curious high school students, and people contemplating a career change crowded into an event room at the Quality Inn on Putney Road for the first annual Southeastern Vermont Career Expo.
A combination of 41 local businesses, education providers, state agencies, and staffing agencies greeted 503 people during the four-hour expo hosted by the Windham Workforce Investment Board (Windham WIB) on Sept. 26.
“There are a lot of people unemployed in this area,” observed a hotel guest as she rolled her suitcase past the busy expo registration table.
Employment, wages, and building a younger workforce in Windham County have been topics of discussion for economic development initiatives like the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS).
According to SeVEDS, wages in Windham County are lower than the surrounding regions and some of the lowest in Vermont. The county also has the oldest population in the state. This combination is a challenge for employers building their workforces, because as older employees retire, it is harder to replace them with younger, entry-level employees.
During an Aug. 5 roundtable with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., local business owners also discussed gaps they witnessed in the skills of prospective workers that made hiring difficult.
Gigi Matthews, resort services supervisor for Stratton Mountain Resort, said that the ski resort was looking to hire seasonal and full-time staff.
Stratton hires for a variety of positions, from housekeeping to sales to maintenance to executives. Matthews said that Stratton’s diverse workforce needs and focus on training meant that the ski resort looked less at a candidate’s skills and more at his or her optimism, and whether they’d be a good fit.
Angela Timm, director of finance and administration at Commonwealth Dairy, said the yogurt company wanted to fill 30 temporary packaging positions.
The company routinely starts new hires in entry-level, temporary packaging positions, Timm said. In starting workers as temp-to-hire, the company evaluates individual workers’ skills and potential, and then invites some to come aboard full-time.
Commonwealth also feels that promoting from within builds loyalty, Timm said.
Of the company’s 112 workers, 60 started as temps and were moved into full-time payroll, she added.
What’s in a name?
David Altstadt, coordinator of the Windham WIB and the expo, sat on a couch in the Quality Inn’s lobby while speaking with members of the press. A steady stream of people walked by.
Exhibitors told him they’d been talking to people all afternoon.
Altstadt said that the organizers called the day’s event a career expo — not a job fair — to target the widest range of job seekers.
“It’s part of a continuum,” he said.
Some people may leave the expo with job applications in hand, he said. But workers are at different stages of their careers: Some are actively seeking work; others are taking the next step in their careers; some high school students were out “looking for what’s possible."
First and foremost, Altstadt said, “we’re trying to get the word out about what it is that our local businesses do, the variety of occupational fields they employ workers in, and the qualifications they desire in new hires, such as preferred educational levels, job-related skills, and prior work experience."
He characterized participant feedback as good, adding that job seekers and career researchers were discovering companies and opportunities they seemed excited about connecting with.
A hope for the expo is that it will help employers tell their stories and induce people to stay in the region and grow their careers here. The education institutions in attendance can also help people adapt current experience and skills or gain new skill sets for landing a new job.
“[The expo is about] setting the table and letting those conversations happen,” he said.
Altstadt said the WIB’s exit survey of attendees would yield valuable insight for planning additional career expos.
The expo fits into the bigger picture of workforce revitalization and the work of SeVEDS and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, he added.
Representatives of R.O.V. Technologies, Inc. a Brattleboro-based robotics company specializing in nuclear facility inspection, said the company is looking for engineers.
Electrical and mechanical engineers are few and far between, said Donald Butler, the company’s vice-president for market development.
Most of people who stopped by the company’s display did not fit the bill, said Butler and another representative, Melanie Boese.
That said, added Boese, they asked a few to send along their résumés.
Exposure and outreach were the biggest benefits of the expo for R.O.V.
“Nobody seems to know we’re here,” said Boese.
A number of high school students seeking career advice reached out to R.O.V. at the expo.
A man stopped by with his son, a junior in high school, said Butler. It was great to see the father helping his son prepare for the future.
Daydon Harvey, who has worked in the United States and overseas, came to the expo seeking a job in management or project management.
As she filled out the exit survey, Harvey said she looked at a few jobs and found multiple employers she planned to investigate.
The crowds at the expo made having conversations, and at times getting information, difficult, she said. Holding the expo in a bigger space would have been nice.
Still, she felt the expo represented a good attempt to help workers and potential employers connect.
The Career Expo sponsors included C & S Wholesale Grocers, Brattleboro Retreat, Commonwealth Dairy, Entergy Vermont Yankee, Green Mountain Power, Against the Grain Gourmet, Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation/SeVEDS, Chroma Technologies, Creative Workforce Solutions, Fairpoint Communications, GS Precision, Members 1st Credit Union, Mount Snow, New Chapter, Sonnax, Southeastern Vermont Community Action, Stratton Mountain Resort, TD Bank, The Richards Group, the Vermont Department of Labor, and the Windham Regional Career Center.