PARIS — COVID-19 has disrupted all aspects of education in Maine including career development programs. Oxford Hills Community Education Exchange, a nonprofit organization within SAD 17, is working to continue its mission of bringing students and employers together through its first virtual job fair. The virtual job fair replaces the traditional one-day event that has taken place each year.

“The job fair is live now,” explained Jessica Watson, Director of the program. “It’s different in that students are not able to get face-to-face experience with hiring companies. They can attend anytime, but it’s up to them to find their time. And unfortunately, with businesses in flux because of COVID-19, participation has been down.”

Watson said that in 2019 and a strong economy about 50 businesses participated in the live job fair at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. Currently only 20 are involved with the virtual job fair. Even with a reduced offering, the job fair site received about 200 visits during its first two days online.

“Now that the economy is starting to reopen in our area and business owners are starting to adapt their strategies and operations going forward, I’m hopeful that more will participate” in the job fair, Watson said. “Open job postings are a big part of it but the service includes more opportunities than that, like informational interviews for students trying to decide on future careers or education. We have examples of resumes and interview questions and other learning tools.”

Founded in 1993 with a mission to retain entry-level talent for Oxford hills employers, the Education Exchange engages students from elementary through high school. Each school in the eight communities that make up SAD 17 is partnered with a corporate mentor that supports it with programs like guest speaking on business or the company’s products and services, field-trip sponsorship and reading time.


Over the last few years Grover Precision, the company that mentors Agnes Gray Elementary in West Paris, has developed a particularly close relationship with the school. Employees provided volunteer time to improve the playground, gathered donations to supply students with education tools and materials and even delivered Thanksgiving meals. During the pandemic, Grover Precision has purchased more than $10,000 in gift cards from local business for students and their families.

Beyond Grover Precision and Agnes Gray, business/school partnerships include Paris Elementary with WJ Wheeler, Agnes Gray Elementary with Grover Precision, Rowe Elementary with New Balance, Oxford Elementary School with TD Bank, Otisfield Community School with Hannaford, Hebron Elementary with Valley View Orchard, Waterford/Harrison Elementary Schools with Walmart and Oxford Hills Middle School is partnered with Oxford Federal Credit Union.

Watson said the contributions of local mentor businesses are invaluable to the students and communities of SAD 17 daily, not just as participants in annual events like the job fair.

This year Education Exchange and its virtual job fair got a boost for its mission with a $5,000 grant from MELMAC Education Foundation and Educate Maine.

“We awarded the grant in recognition of Oxford Hills Community Education Exchange ability to engage both parents and local businesses and the way they have raised aspirations of students in SAD 17,” said Jason Judd, Educate Maine’s Executive Director. “Their work helps kids consider a wide variety of occupations and the career development and education they need.”

Watson said the grant will be used to develop strategies to increase parental and business awareness in the Education Exchange’s programs.


“We don’t know exactly how things will look in the fall,” Watson said. “We’re exploring new methods to reach parents, working to incorporate more social media. We don’t know how internships and job shadowing for students will work. We need to rethink how we do things and how to execute our signature events and programs.”

The virtual job fair has been a good stopgap solution, according to Watson. Students and employers can access it at their leisure. It is hosted on Oxford Hills Technical School’s website. It launched on May 4 and she expects it to continue until at least the end of June.

“Since it’s ongoing, it is not time sensitive,” she said. “We can keep it fluid and adapt content as we go.

“What we need is more business participation. Understandably, they’ve had a tough time, even having to cease operations during the pandemic. But we are a resource for them for future hires. And the information students get on which opportunities in our communities might be for them is important to continue.”

Watson encourages businesses that have taken part in the past to return, virtually. She also wants new businesses to see a virtual job fair as a way to develop their workforce for the future.

Like many organizations, the Education Exchange staff is working remotely. Business owners and human resources officials should contact Watson by email at [email protected] to get more information about participating in the job fair over the next four weeks.


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