Last month, 149 transition students across the state of Oregon came together virtually to learn what’s it like to work at a Panda Express restaurant.

Through videos and online conferencing, they got a glimpse into a day in the life of a Panda Express employee. The interaction was lively as students asked questions and got answers in real time. Questions ranged from how the food is prepared (lots of fresh vegetables are involved) to how the company was named (pandas represent the country of China, where the founding family came from) to whether new employees receive training on chopping the vegetables (yes!)

“They were marvelous questions and they just kept coming! Students were very engaged,” said Jodi Johnson, Pre-ETS specialist in northwest Oregon.

This experience is just one of the ways that transition students continue to explore job opportunities, even during the pandemic. With a little creativity and persistence, the transition community has adapted to stay-at-home guidelines by going online. This was the case for the Pre-ETS specialists who recently created a Statewide Virtual Job Club.

 

Taking Jobs Clubs Online

Pre-ETS stands for Pre-Employment Transition Services. These specialists and coordinators are part of Oregon’s Vocational Rehabilitation program. They work in every region of the state with students age 14-21 who have disabilities. By participating in pre-employment services, students can explore different industries and job opportunities in their community. Along the way, they focus on gaining the right experiences to get hired and be successful at their job.

Many Pre-ETS specialists create jobs clubs, a social way to help groups of students learn about industries like food service, retail, or manufacturing. Before COVID, students in a job club could tour a business in person, checking out the work that happens behind the scenes. They focused mostly on industries in their own region. When schools switched to online learning, job clubs were put on hold—until the Pre-ETS specialists decided to work together to create the Statewide Virtual Job Club to benefit students all over Oregon.

Jodi Johnson, Pre-ETS specialist in northwest Oregon, explained how this idea came to be. “The Pre-ETS support specialists meet monthly to share information and collaborate. As a group, we were looking for innovative ways to keep our young adults focused on preparing for the future and on job exploration in particular,” said Johnson.

 

Behind the Scenes at Panda Express

The first challenge was to choose an industry relevant across the state, and to do it in a way that allowed for peer-to-peer interactions. Creating community through bringing transition students together is an important aspect of Pre-ETS work. The virtual job club had to be engaging and interactive. And it had to be accessible to students statewide.

Last month, their first virtual event featured a popular business from the food service industry: Panda Express.

Panda Express was the perfect business to kick off the new project, according to Johnson. “Students throughout the state were already familiar with the restaurant. And the recruiting representative for Panda Express was eager to talk with our students,” said Johnson. They hosted the event on Zoom, and over 149 students tuned in.

Many students had previously only seen employees serving food, and they were curious about the many jobs that happen behind the scenes:  chopping vegetables, cooking different dishes, proper food handling and clean-up. Asking questions in real-time kept everyone engaged.

 

What’s next for the Statewide Virtual Job Club?

Now that we are nearing the end of stay-at-home learning, will the online job club continue?

“Absolutely! We’ve found so many positives in doing this virtually. Really, it’s just getting started,” said Johnson.

The Pre-ETS specialists realized that virtual events allow students to experience job fields they’ve never thought about as possibilities. This technology made it possible for the company to reach a wide audience of potential employees. Johnson and her colleagues are currently building an impressive list of businesses for future virtual job club sessions—including several who may have been unable to offer in-person tours.

Next on their list is an interview with a representative from a prosthetics company, which makes artificial limbs and body parts. They are also talking with Sony PlayStation, which would appeal to the many online gamers in the transition community, and live theater businesses in Southern Oregon. Another route may be to revisit businesses that held in-person jobs club tours in the past and offer them again in this new virtual format. For example, Johnson has led a jobs club visit to IKEA, a business that may interest students throughout the state.

Just as importantly, transition students made connections across Oregon. “Students on the eastern border met peers on the coast who share their interests. They learned how vast their community really is,” said Johnson.

Future virtual jobs clubs are scheduled for the last Wednesday of each month from 10:00 to 11:30 am.

Transition students who would like to participate should contact the Pre-ETS specialist for their region. In Central Oregon, contact Pre-ETS coordinator Desiree Barry at Desiree.Berry@dhsoha.state.or.us, or call 503-586-6817.