Shawn Henderson knows that his 100-plus student teachers have a tough time taking off work to attend career fairs.

So Henderson, director of field experiences for the College of Education at Fort Hays State University, helped come up with an alternative opportunity.

On back-to-back Mondays during March, FHSU hosted virtual career fairs — the first for teacher education majors and the second for all other majors. The online fairs were the first of their kind at Fort Hays State.

“Our goal is to create an experience to connect our students with potential employers,” Henderson said. “We wanted to try something new and try something different, so those connections can be made.”

Both fairs were considered a success by Karen McCullough, director of career services, which partnered with CareerEco, a Georgia company that plans and coordinates virtual career fairs.

Sixty-seven school districts participated in the Tiger Teacher Nation Employment and Education Virtual Fair on March 5, more than twice the participation of 32 of a year ago at the on-campus teacher education fair. In addition, 34 different organizations set up online “booths” at the Career and Internship Virtual Fair March 12.

Nearly 225 registered for the Tiger Teacher Nation event, and the career/internship fair also had more than 200 registrants.

Not only did the online model help student teachers who couldn't make it back to campus for a fair, but it also was a boon for FHSU Virtual College students.

“We heard from faculty and staff that with our large number of virtual students, new ways to connect online students to employers should be explored,” McCullough said. “Hosting the virtual fairs this spring is a step toward supporting online students in helping them reach their career destinations.”

CareerEco provides the technical support for the fairs and connects job-seekers and students to employers, grad schools and professional organizations.

“We were excited to partner with Career Services, and we feel we had a really good start,” Henderson said. “We try to do a lot of new things, try to stay very progressive how we represent our students. We were excited about the number of school districts that participated.”

Shanna Dinkel, assistant superintendent for Hays USD 489, was pleased with the outcome.

“The fair gave the opportunity to meet a few candidates that had not yet applied online at our district website,” Dinkel said. “I appreciated being able to chat privately as well as with the whole room. It was the first step in making connections with possible candidates.”

Chris Conroy, an FHSU Virtual College student from McCook, Neb., said he would not have had the opportunity to participate in the fair had it not been online.

“Being a virtual college student, I wouldn’t have gone to campus to a career fair,” Conroy said. “This way, I put in one application and got word out to four or five school districts. I was able to look at a lot more districts than I would have even thought of. It was definitely a positive experience.”

McCullough is well aware of students’ tight schedules and their many responsibilities. “Talking about these challenges, we decided to try a virtual fair,” she said.

The teacher education fair received drop-ins from numerous states and even two from China.

“For the millennial students,” McCullough said, “this might be more comfortable for them, being in a chat room and typing their questions.”

Whether participating online or in person, Chelsea Bangerter will attest to the value of career fairs.

A 2017 graduate of FHSU, Bangerter participated in the fall 2016 career fair her senior year on campus and pinned down an internship to Gilmore Solutions, an outsourced information technology company with locations in Sterling and Garden City that provides services for businesses all across the state.

This week, now a full-time employee of Gilmore in business development and human resources, Bangerter represented her company in the online career fair.

“Attending a career fair is how I found my job,” she said. “I would advise anyone to participate in as many as they can.”

Bangerter, this time sitting on the other side of the desk, also was pleased with FHSU’s initiative to start an online career fair.

“I had some good candidates supply resumes,” she said. “Even if I get one, I’m happy for the turnout.”