Southwest Florida virtual job fair provides 'visibility', sees high demand during coronavirus pandemic

Andrew Wigdor Fort Myers News-PressPublished 2:11 PM EDT Jul 31, 2020With the country tumbling into a coronavi

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With the country tumbling into a coronavirus-fueled recession, many Americans are searching for employment.

To answer this issue, virtual career fairs have popped up with the hopes of filling needs for job seekers and employers in a safe environment. The pandemic has posed challenges in connecting with companies as the job-searching process has traditionally relied on in-person interactions. 

CareerSource Southwest Florida held one of these virtual fairs on Thursday, the same day the U.S. economy's worst contraction on record was reported.

The need for such an event has proven to be high in the region. 

In June, the unemployment rate dropped to a still-high 9.7% from 12.3% the previous month in Collier County, and in Lee, unemployment fell from 13% to 9.8%, according to the latest jobs report from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. 

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The department's website also shows that 3,365,774 reemployment assistance claims have been filed in Florida from March 15 to July 28. 

In Lee County, over 68,000 COVID-19-related initial claims were filed from March 7 through July 18, and in Collier, there were over 32,000, according to the website. 

Virtual job fair sees high demand from SWFL residents 

CareerSource representatives deemed their Thursday virtual fair, which was the first the organization has coordinated, "a huge success."

The fair saw a large amount of demand from the community with over 1,000 job seekers participating and 40 employers.

The event consisted of a virtual "lobby" in which each business had their name and logo on a virtual "booth." These booths could then be clicked on by a job seeker and would take the participants to that businesses' page. From there, job seekers could see information about the business, the amount and description of job openings and could chat live with a representative.

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In total, the virtual "booths" were visited more than 7,000 times by job seekers.

Additionally, over 6,400 chat messages were exchanged between potential employees and employers, and 1,233 applications were filed, with many employers reporting that interviews have already been scheduled.

Peg Elmore, CareerSource’s director of business services, said that she thinks more applications will follow as a result of the fair. 

Elmore said that it was the right time to put on such an event because student populations in the area are "heavily dependent" on the hospitality industry for part-time work while they're in school, and fall semesters will be starting soon.

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The hospitality industry has taken quite a hit during the pandemic. The leisure and hospitality industry lost the most jobs of any industry in Florida in June, with a year-over-year loss of 268,400 jobs, or a 21.5% decline. 

She also noted the generally strong demand brought on by many being laid off during the pandemic.

Marie Ramos, a Fort Myers resident, participated in the fair after her position at Lady of Light Catholic Community church in Fort Myers was eliminated at the end of June due to the coronavirus pandemic. Her program administrator position couldn't be maintained after financial losses. 

Ramos said the virtual fair was informative and provided ample options while she is still determining where she'd like to go in her career transition. 

"Overall I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but this worked out absolutely beautiful," she said. "Basically you just click on whoever you're interested in. It was very informative." 

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Ramos said she's never participated in a career fair before but believes that the virtual method may be even better than in-person events due to how readily available information is on the online platform. 

"You have everything at your fingertips," she said.

Businesses provided with 'visibility' during virtual fair

While a virtual fair was "a first" for many in the business community, Elmore said it makes for a more efficient experience for companies. 

"If they're not busy, they can remain at their desk and do other tasks," she said. "If they're very busy, they can bring another recruiter on very easily to the system ... They're not traveling, they're not setting up a booth and they're not out of the office." 

Elmore also said that virtual career fairs are now another tool in the "tool-belt" for CareerSource to use, and the organization will consider holding virtual fairs even when in-person events are safe to put on. CareerSource generally holds several hiring events each year.

One of the employer participants of the fair was home improvement retailer Lowe's.

Jennifer Korol, a Lowe's talent acquisition partner, said that the company usually participates in career fairs a few times a year, but that hasn't been an option amid the pandemic.

Virtual fairs, she said, are a great way to produce "visibility" during the outbreak for both the employers and employee.

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She noted that Lowe's isn't doing in-person interviews right now to cut down on potential exposure among people and is just doing phone interviews before job offers are made. The virtual fairs give potential employees a second chance to gain exposure from the company after submitting their application online. 

"I think it's a great alternative," she said. "It was a great vehicle for us to target quite a few folks in four hours."

She also stated that demand for open positions has been much higher than usual amid the economic situation spurred by the pandemic.

She said that more than 200 people visited the Lowe's booth during the virtual fair, and the company was advertising more than 30 area positions.

Deborah Carlson, an HR manager for Mercola, a Cape Coral business that sells organic supplements and food items, also thought the fair was "very effective."

Mercola saw 41 participants visit their booth and was advertising a total of about six openings. 

Carlson said the virtual method has the possibility of reaching even more job seekers than the traditional way.

"People who may not be able to come to a face-to-face type fair can log in from wherever they're at, so to me, you have a larger reach," she said. 

Reach Andrew Wigdor on Twitter @andrew_wigdor
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