Exploring the Worlds of Work: Researchers Help Shape Career Fair for Eighth Graders

West Alabama Works logoFrom the October 2020 Desktop News | Two Arts and Sciences researchers are working to study the future of West Alabama’s workforce through Worlds of Work, an event which helps eighth grade students in the area to explore different work fields, careers, and technical training programs through their schools.

Dr. Joan Barth, a senior research social scientist in the Institute for Social Science Research, and Dr. Pamela Young, Director of Community Engagement and Economic Development, partnered with the West Alabama Works, Region 3 Workforce Development Council, Tuscaloosa City and County Schools and The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama to create surveys about the Worlds of Work event. These surveys help the organizations with planning future events and allow them to understand students’ career foci as they head into high school.

Held at Shelton State Community College, the Worlds of Work expo highlights 11 different career fields: agriculture, construction, cosmetology, education, energy and utilities, engineering and environment, healthcare, hospitality and tourism, manufacturing/auto/logistics, public safety, and transportation.

Before attending the event, Barth and Young created a survey asking students what they want to be when they grow up and what questions they had about the work force.

“We had some students who knew exactly what they wanted to be when they got older, and they knew the exact path they needed to take to get there,” Young said. “But a lot of students either had a general idea of careers they were interested in, or were still exploring.”

Once at Worlds of Work, students explore career fields they’re curious about. Each of the 11 worlds included booths with different businesses around West Alabama, where students could talk to employees and mentors about their experiences in the field. Students were also able to take part in hands-on activities and demonstrations throughout the worlds.

“They made these incredibly authentic experiences for the kids,” Barth said. “At the construction site, they had huge cranes and equipment. The agriculture section brought in animals for the students to meet. The transportation world included Mercedes, and they had car models the kids could sit in. And the healthcare sector had an area where students could practice sewing sutures and look at X-rays.”

When students left the event, Barth and Young reached out with a post-event survey, asking the students what they enjoyed about the event, what could be improved, and if their career aspirations had changed along the way. To them, including the students’ voices was an essential part of the data collection.

“You don’t always hear the voices of the kids in the data that’s collected, and what was really exciting about this program is that we were able to collect data about what the kids felt and what they thought,” Barth said. “It’s really useful, because rather than adults saying, ‘this is what you must do to have a successful event,’ it was more ‘What is it that you like? What is it that you want to do? How do you see this program contributing to your future?’ And that, I think, was a really interesting way of designing the survey and designing this evaluation because we’re able to really use the students’ points of view to help shape the study.”

After compiling the data, Barth and Young found that over 40 percent of the students surveyed had a new career interest, they were interested in putting into practice their talents and abilities, the positive attitude they had toward the career, the opportunity to make a positive impact on society, express creativity, and the salary associated with the career.

The top three fields that boys showed interest in were sports, engineering, and trades, while girls showed more interest in medicine, healthcare, and the arts. For Barth and Young, learning about these interests was not only important to see how to shape the event in the future, but for the West Alabama community to invest in their students, as well as fostering relationships with community programs working to make an impact.

“As the state flagship university, we have a mandate to contribute to the social and economic development of our communities,” Young said. “And this was one of those ways in which we were able to bring the experience that we have in the University and contribute to our community. At the same time, we benefit from the wisdom and the knowledge that these folks have of running this program and seeing what they’ve done firsthand. Everyone’s bringing their own set of skills and expertise to the table, which creates a wonderful product.”