DECATUR — More than 1,000 high school students from 10 area schools converged Tuesday on the soccer field inside the Decatur indoor Sports Center for a one-stop shop to learn about career and college opportunities.
The annual Decatur Area College and Career Fair, co-sponsored by Richland Community College and Millikin University, united more than 65 in-state and out-of-state colleges, technical schools, armed forces, and resource services, who set up shop to introduce themselves to the curious students.
“It’s one of those places where, you don’t know what you want to do or what college you want to go to, you stop here and can talk to them,” said John Oliver, career service coordinator at Richland.
Andrew Fuchs brought a unique perspective to the recruiting table, as he was one of the few representatives set up to talk to students about opportunities available outside of college. As the apprenticeship coordinator for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 137, Fuchs said there is a need for those in well-paying trade jobs that only require several years of a free apprenticeship.
At least one student Fuchs spoke with didn't know what an apprentice was, which he said underscored the need to get his message out. He said he has seen a number of young people go off to college because they felt obligated, then leave after a year or so with tens of thousands of dollars in student debts.
“When the building trades got removed from most of the curriculums at the high school level, a lot them do not know about the jobs or the opportunities,” said Fuchs, who brought along a virtual simulator that allowed students to try their hand at welding. “If we had been exposed to them on the front end, they could have tried this and be earning a living without that debt.”
Among those reaching out to the students were Barton Jennings and Honey Zimmerman, both of whom teach supply chain management at Western Illinois University.
Described by Jennings as an “invisible growth industry,” the two spoke to students about the importance of the industry here in Decatur, especially with existing companies like Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Caterpillar Inc. as well as the push by city and county leaders to develop Decatur's road and rail infrastructure into a transportation hub.
Even if students have never considered the concept of a supply chain, Zimmerman said it is something that impacts everyone, whether they are getting groceries or ordering something from Amazon.
“No matter what their interests are, there is something there for them in the supply chain,” said Zimmerman, an assistant professor of supply chain management.
While most of those at the event represented colleges across the Midwest, Oliver said he wanted students to consider all their options as they prepare to graduate high school.
“It’s not for me to say to go to college, but I think it’s our responsibility to tell young people to get some kind of training beyond high school,” he said.