Finding Employment, Supporting Health

Alabama community college combines career and wellness fairs into large event to serve students and local unemployed.
March 23, 2011

Unemployed students and locals come to Lawson State Community College’s annual career fair to find a job, but they may leave with something unexpected and much more important — information about their health that could save their life.

“My thought was, if you don’t have a job, you don’t have insurance,” said Kristie Rankin, director of career services at the Birmingham, Ala., community college. “Therefore, you are less likely to seek out any sort of health care.”

And so, Rankin came up with the idea to incorporate the college’s annual wellness fair into the always-popular career fair — both of which were previously open only to students and the families of faculty members — and invite anyone in the area. Alongside local employers, like the Coca-Cola Bottling Company and Tupperware, seeking new recruits, local doctors and health organizations offer myriad free screenings and information sessions to visitors.

For example, the local hospital provides information on how the uninsured can get prescriptions and health care. Among the medical services offered free: the local Wal-Mart gives vision screenings; a health association tests for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases; and Lawson State’s nursing students screen for high blood pressure.

“We’ve sent some people straight to the emergency department due to issues with blood pressure or glucose levels,” Rankin said. “They just didn’t realize they were nearly at stroke level.… Also, about the other screenings, if you identify just one person as HIV-positive, then just imagine the lives you’ve possibly saved.”

Lawson State hosted its first combined career and wellness fair in 2008, just when the local real estate market in Birmingham was beginning to crash, a forewarning of spiking area unemployment. Now, with the college’s fourth fair in the books earlier this month, Rankin believes she had the right idea at the right time to help her community get through the recession. “We’re a community college,” Rankin said. “We should be serving the community that’s providing us with tax dollars. These are our stakeholders, and we owe them whatever service we can provide.”

Rankin said her colleagues at Lawson State have grown to appreciate the combined fair, but she did note that it took some convincing to get them on board with the idea. They did not mind having the wellness fair open to the public, but they did mind the job fair being open to all. “The first concern was that this was something originally just for students,” Rankin said. “We’re not trying to shortchange our students. We’re just raising the bar. Our students will just have to be better at the career fair now. They have to outshine everybody else that comes in.”

This year’s event at Lawson State attracted over 400 people, despite severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. “It’s a simple idea but so many people can be helped,” Rankin said. “I encourage many more community colleges to follow suit.”

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David Moltz

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