story and photos by Aric Mitchell
More than 300 jobseekers had filed in to the Fort Smith Convention Center Exhibit Halls A and B during the first 50 minutes of the 7-hour Careers for Our Region Job Fair event, presented by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday (July 17).
In June, Fort Smith bid farewell to its Whirlpool plant, ending a stretch of mass layoffs that began in 2006 and finished in the direct loss of 4,500 total jobs from the city’s economy. But that did not deter many of the manufacturing locations still active in the area from seeking out candidates at Tuesday’s event, along with dozens of other employers.
Gerber representative Robert Moore, a generalist in the company’s Human Resources department, occupied one of the 80 booths on Tuesday. Moore said Gerber “is in the process of expanding,” and indicated the company is encouraged by Fort Smith’s future.
“In the first round of (Whirlpool) layoffs, a lot of people took the options to go to school, so what’s been great for us is that in this last round of hiring we did, we were able to hire people with associates degrees and workforce leadership degrees. It’s unfortunate that jobs are leaving, but what’s fortunate for us is that we’re seeing educated folks with a manufacturing background, and we are able to hire them. To me, that’s a great success story for Gerber and for Fort Smith. We (as a community) have to be able to bring jobs in. We have to be able to sell to these companies that, hey we’ve got an educated workforce. A dedicated, educated workforce. And Gerber has benefitted from that in the last six months,” Moore said.
Tim Allen, chief operating officer for the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, was also encouraged by the city’s future in manufacturing, though he did say that Fort Smith could no longer be “a pure manufacturing community.”
“We have to diversify over time, and we’re making efforts to do that. But a majority of the projects from consultants and the AEDC (Arkansas Economic Development Commission) that we’re hearing about are manufacturing projects. The good news is we have a workforce that knows how to do those types of things, and that’s a positive side for Fort Smith.”
Allen believes the city’s extensive manufacturing background could even prove more beneficial than “free land or buildings or incentives.”
“Every community can offer those things, but if you don’t have the workforce to go with it, you’re not going to be successful. That’s what Fort Smith has — all the pieces. The infrastructure, the workforce, the incentives. That’s all going our way when it comes to working manufacturing projects,” Allen explained.
Referring back to the Whirlpool closure, Allen added that, “Manufacturing is still active, even though we’re all aware of some of the setbacks. Unfortunately, it happened, but we’ve got to move on and try to find jobs for those people that are unemployed. That’s really what this event is all about.”
The Job Fair was preceded on Monday night (July 16) by an event to help jobseekers with “resume building, the application process, and how to present themselves in a job interview,” Allen said. About 70 people showed up for the private conference with staffing representatives throughout the city.
Sheri Neely, district manager of Kelly Services, was one of those representatives.
“We had a lot of people with great work histories,” Neely said. “Some were just a little overwhelmed about what to do next. Some had gone back to school and were looking for part-time work. Others were looking to totally change their careers. I believe we were able to give them some good advice and tips on what to do.”
Most important among those tips, Neely said, was to “stay connected,” adding that “if you’re not on Facebook, get on it.”
Neely encourages the use of social networking as well as “staying in touch with friends you have worked with” and volunteering.
“You never know who you know that lives next door to somebody, who goes to church with somebody, who’s hiring a person somewhere, or who knows of a job opening. We’re a big River Valley area, so staying connected is extremely important,” Neely said, adding that connections are more important than job applications, though she was careful not to discount that traditional method either.
“Applications are still extremely important, too, because a lot of times, that’s the first thing an employer sees, and from that they make a determination if there’s going to be a face-to-face interview, based on grammar and spelling and work experience, and just how you’re able to talk about what you’ve done.”
To go with Neely's point, Moore adds that how a candidate communicates is of vital importance.
“Typical interviewing nowadays is behavior-based. What you’re looking for is this: if I ask you a question, I want to know how you contributed to it, what were the results, what did you improve or learn from it, what were the savings? To be successful in an interview, you have to be able to articulate the event. How did it turn out? What was my hand in it?”
Moore particularly likes candidates, who “ask questions in return.”
“One of my favorite things to see in an interview is someone, who comes in with their pad and paper, and asks questions. Because everyone has them. They may research the company, or they may ask something as simple as, ‘What are your expectations of me as a company?’ I wouldn’t ask ‘How much are you going to pay me an hour?’ That’s not a good interview question. Sell yourself first, and then that can be negotiated later,” Moore said.