Students evaluate future prospects at career fair
By Luke Groskopf
Journal Staff Writer
More than 1,000 area high school students got a glimpse into the future last week at the first ever Montelores Collaborative Career Fair, hosted by Southwest Colorado Community College.
The teenagers were shuttled to SCCC in shifts: juniors and seniors in the morning, followed by freshmen and sophomores in the afternoon. Each student attended three 40-minute sessions featuring various professionals who explained their careers, along with related degrees or training. They answered student questions and dispensed advice on how to be a marketable employee.
The panelists, about 140 in all, offered a thorough cross-section of the workforce in Montezuma County.
There were doctors and police, bankers and chefs, writers and mathematicians, software designers and farmers, forest rangers and auto mechanics.
Doug Sparks of Empire Electric Association urged students to remain flexible, since technology is always shifting.
"Twenty years ago, technicians didn't know what a smart grid was. We all have to relearn things," he said.
Ed Merritt, president of Dolores State Bank, said employers appreciate reliable work ethic and presentability. He recommended that students do a self-assessment to decide if their personalities are suited to do work that is solitary or group-oriented, in the public eye or private, empirical or creative.
Merritt also told students to beware of the ever-watchful eyes of camera phones and social media. Unflattering photos and coarse comments are enough to disqualify an applicant from some employers' consideration.
"There is no private anymore," he said. "Everything is captured. We all do crazy things sometimes, but be wise. Employers check those sites."
Internships were a popular recommendation, not only as a resume builder, but also as a means for students to test their aptitude for a given field. If no formal internship is available, ask to shadow a professional, some panelists said.
Jessica Adams, an academic advisor with Trio Talent Search at Fort Lewis College, said smart planning starts now. She recommended taking rigorous courses in high school to boost credentials and be competitive for scholarships.
Cortez Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde said he looks for clear communicators.
"Learn to talk to adults. Learn to complete an application properly. Make sure the spelling is right. Dress well," he said. "In the job market nowadays, you have 30 people applying for two spots. You need to communicate well to set yourself apart."
Virtually all panelists encouraged students to discover their passions, saying life is invariably more gratifying if you don't despise waking up for work in the morning.
Registered nurse Natasha Aspromonte, for example, enjoys her work at Southwest Memorial Hospital because of the trust complete strangers place in her. She said nursing school gave her the tools and confidence needed to give excellent care to patients.
The career fair was meant to broaden horizons, according to Jennifer Carter, director of Southwest Open School. Carter was part of the committee that coordinated logistics and invited panelists.
"We provided exposure and resources regarding careers to high school-age students, so they'd be equipped with information, knowledge and an understanding of how to envision their own futures," she said.
Carter said teenagers are not always aware of the options available to them. While high schools in Cortez, Mancos, Dolores and Dove Creek employ counselors to help students prepare for college or the workforce, hearing from well-established working professionals can be an effective motivator.
"We are only able to discover our potential when we understand what potential options exist," Carter said.
Organizers hope the career fair will be the first of many to come. By holding the event annually, students could better clarify their post-high school ambitions over multiple visits. Theoretically, this year's freshman class will take part four times before graduation in 2016.
"It was helpful," said Eddie Martinez, an M-CHS sophomore with interest in engineering. "You're getting to meet people who have experience and who know (the jobs) first hand."
Ed Rice, Career Technical Education Director at M-CHS, said expecting all students to finalize their long-term career plans during high school isn't realistic. For some, the career fair merely helped to cross certain professions off the list. Others might find their interest piqued in a sector they had no idea about.
For Martinez, the biggest takeaway was the importance of time management.
"Don't wait until senior year to do everything. Be prepared," he said.