The “best kept secret in government,” according to Robert Trevino, commissioner of Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, a division of the Arkansas Department of Career Education (ACE), is not a secret anymore — at least not in Fort Smith.
ACE hosted its seventh statewide career fair since 2010, and its first in the Fort Smith region, at the Phoenix Expo and Trade Center on Tuesday (Sept. 25). In the process, the organization set a new attendance record as more than 1,100 attendees ranging from high school groups to jobseekers crowded in to the facility at 4600 Towson Ave. (The previous record was set in Jonesboro and was close to 300 less than Tuesday’s turnout, Trevino said.)
The event is the brainchild of Michael Vickers, ARS program manager, who believes Arkansas “is hungry for this.”
“If the people don’t know about us, they can’t come to us. So we’re going to come to the people,” Vickers said.
Vickers pitched the idea to his bosses in 2010 and was given the go-ahead.
“From the agency standpoint, we found there were a lot of people confused as to who we are and what we do. So it came down to the question, ‘How can we market better?’”
The first event launched in North Little Rock, “where about 250 people attended. It just grew from there,” Vickers said.
Vickers explained that before ACE goes in to a community, they look at “how we can help in that community and what kind of jobs are available there.”
“We do a lot of training and long hours, but I think it’s worth it overall. When I see a turnout like this — and how this community, the media, and the people worked to get it out there — it pays off. I think we have changed some lives today, and that is my hope for this.”
On Tuesday, the fair featured booths that included adult education, employers, and rehabilitation services. One such agency — Division of Services for the Blind — demonstrated a computer system named JAWS, “like the shark,” said technology specialist Liz Whitaker, who is herself visually impaired.
JAWS (Job Access with Speech) is a screen-reading software with braille support that allows people with visual impairments to work independently. Whitaker graduated from the Arkansas School for the Blind in 1997 and has worked as a technology specialist for the Division of Services for the Blind for close to 12 years.
Whitaker points out that programs like JAWS give people with impaired vision a more level playing field in the job market, making them good candidates for technology-driven careers, such as customer service, transcription and other telecommuting positions, while also allowing visually impaired individuals to advance their education.
Vickers, who runs the ARS alternative finance program, adds that his division is able to offer financial assistance for programs like JAWS and can give individuals with disabilities “the things they need to become more independent.”
“There are a lot of people out there, who need devices or things that you and I take for granted, and we can finance that.”
Vickers emphasized the “one-stop shop” goal of the fair, adding that the program is designed to help with “whatever you need: a GED, rehabilitation services, workforce services, services for the blind. It makes them better, and it makes the community better. We’re investing in human capital, in communities, and the state of Arkansas as a whole, and I think we will get great returns.”