Will students in Northern Indiana build their careers here? This program sparks job connections

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a commonly-heard question, and one many adults are still figuring out. 

For Northern Indiana eighth graders, the JA JobSpark career expo hopes to walk students through an exploration of that question spotlighting high-growth, in-demand industries. The interactive career exploration program invites regional students to attend an event, offering hands-on experiences and talks with industry professionals in several sectors from about 60 businesses.

Regional representatives from businesses, non-profits, government and educational organizations will be on-site at career stations. The two-day event is a career- and workforce-ready initiative of Junior Achievement (JA) of Northern Indiana

Sue Jackson, Program Manager for JA JobSpark, says the organization works with students to help them secure their own economic success in the future. 

“We provide programs on financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and career and workforce readiness,” Jackson says. 

Students and professionals participate in the first in-person JA JobSpark event in 2021 hosted by JA of Northern Indiana.

The JA of Northern Indiana headquarters are based in Allen County, but they serve 29 counties, and more than 140,000 students from Pre-K to 12th grade each year. JA JobSpark is a statewide initiative, which originated out of the Central Indiana office six years ago, says Jackson. In 2021, JA of Northern Indiana hosted their first in-person JA JobSpark event, following a virtual format of the event earlier that year due to the pandemic.

“The program has two components to it,” Jackson says. “It has an in-person career expo, which we do in November (8-9), and we have our virtual career expo in March (2-3). The in-person event will take place at the J. Kruse Education Center in Auburn. We have 26 schools already signed up to attend, and we anticipate having up to 6,000 students participating.”

JA JobSpark gives students the opportunity to learn from local professionals firsthand.

Jackson believes exposing eighth-grade students to different career paths they’re not familiar with is beneficial to both students and local companies looking to hire. 

“Eighth graders are just starting to develop a plan for high school: What kind of classes they want to take, and career path they want to take,” she says. “Most eighth-graders really don’t have a clue about what direction they want to take for their career. I know I didn’t when I was younger. At JA, we really feel like exposing them to as many different careers as possible and giving them information educating them on different career pathways, will help make their decision easier for what kind of courses they want to take in high school, and what kind of training or post-secondary education they might need for that career.”

JA JobSpark gives students the opportunity to learn from local professionals firsthand.

The event will feature local employers from eight industry clusters, including: 1) Advanced Manufacturing, Engineering, & Logistics; 2) Agriculture, Food, & Natural Resources; 3) Architecture, Engineering, & Construction; 4) Business, Finance, & Marketing; 5) Government, Law, & Public Service; 6) Health & Life sciences; 7) Hospitality, Tourism, & Arts; and 8) Information Technology. So far, 58 businesses have registered to offer hands-on, interactive activities at the exploration event. Jackson anticipates around 60 total. 

“Students will be able to talk with the professionals who do those jobs and get a good idea about what kind of courses they should take and what training they need for that job,” she says.

Students participate in the first in-person JA JobSpark event in 2021 hosted by JA of Northern Indiana.

Aside from exploration, the organizers also hope to provide support for students. 

“We’re trying to spark their interest in their future, and hopefully help them,” Jackson says. “A lot of kids do not have that good circle of support around them in their family who can help educate them on all the opportunities that are out there for them. This is a good way for them to have that exposure that they otherwise would not have.”

Part of the mission of the event is to also help regional companies attract and retain local talent. By letting students know about job opportunities in their neighborhoods and cities, they can continue to put down roots in the area, contributing to local economic development.

“Our hope is that by exposing students to these careers that we have in Northern Indiana, that they will realize they don’t have to move far away,” Jackson says. “They can stay right here and have a great job and a great living. The cost of living is very low here compared to other areas in the United States, and we have a lot of different types of jobs. A lot of kids think if they want to work in IT, they have to move to California, but that’s not true. We have thousands of jobs in IT in Indiana that are available right now.”

JA JobSpark gives students the opportunity to learn from local professionals firsthand.

Jackson says it’s beneficial for companies to show up and represent their industries because it lets the future workforce know they exist, what their mission is, and how they can be a part of that. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity for our area to develop the talent we need to keep our communities growing and prosperous,” she says. “By letting these kids know what we have available here in Northern Indiana for careers, that’s going to really help fill the pipelines of the future. I think a lot of companies were not being proactive and thinking about what positions they needed to fill. A lot of them have a lot of openings right now. These kids are only four years away from being out of school, and it’s really not that long of a time.”

JA JobSpark gives students the opportunity to learn from local professionals firsthand.

Many students also have the opportunity to network at the event and can land internships or job-shadow programs later in high school, propelling them into viable careers. Discovering the correct, streamlined curriculum in high school and courses needed in college can also make navigating the future a bit easier for students. 

Jackson says the event helps students learn about career paths in unconventional industries, or dispel preconceived notions of certain industries. Speaking directly with professionals in those fields is also a unique aspect of the event, says Jackson. 

“Adults can speak to them about why they chose their own career path and why they love it so much,” she adds.

Students and professionals participate in the first in-person JA JobSpark event in 2021 hosted by JA of Northern Indiana.

A few local employers registered for the 2022 JA JobSpark program include: Steel Dynamics, Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Brooks Construction Co., Inc, The Hagerman Group, JPMorgan Chase, 122nd Indiana Air Guard, National Weather Service, Forest River, Inc., Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and PHP of Northern Indiana.

Volunteers and interested businesses can register by emailing Sue Jackson at [email protected], or call 260-484-2543.