Chris Bierle first explored the idea of a career fair for people with disabilities while working on a capstone project at the University of Sioux Falls (USF). This April, his idea will become a reality as the Opportunity Career Expo kicks off its inaugural event.

Bierle is a special education teacher, and he’s currently pursuing his education specialist degree from USF. While working on his capstone, Bierle says he decided the career fair didn’t need to be hypothetical, and he dove right into planning.

Bierle formed a committee including state agencies like the Transition Services Liaison Project and the Department of Human Services, as well as the University of South Dakota Center for Disabilities, Augustana University, and the Sioux Falls Business Resource Network (SFBRN). While not part of the committee, the City of Sioux Falls and Midcontinent Communications also provided in-kind assistance throughout the planning process.

Vicki Kerkvliet of the SFBRN has been closely involved in the planning process, and she says the expo provides an important opportunity for people with disabilities.

“By targeting the job fair specifically to people with disabilities, we hope they might be more confident and comfortable attending,” Kerkvliet said. 

Additionally, the expo will provide accommodations for people who may require extra assistance. People are encouraged to attend with their job coach or an agency they work with, if applicable. Laptops will also be available for anyone who might want assistance with the application process.

The job fair is open to people of all ages, and Bierle says special education programs are encouraged to attend.

He emphasizes that the expo is not only for people with intellectual disabilities, but it also includes wounded veterans or people who are blind, deaf, or have other physical disabilities. Kerkvliet adds that conditions like depression and anxiety affect job seekers as well, and people dealing with those types of mental health issues can sometimes benefit from accommodations in the workplace.

How is the Opportunity Expo structured? 

Bringing employers and job seekers together under one roof allows both parties to gain a deeper understanding of what they have to offer. While the expo is designed specifically for people with disabilities, both Bierle and Kerkvliet emphasize that a major goal for the event is employer education.

The event is structured like a typical career fair with employer booths for job seekers to visit, but there will also be educational presentations and a panel discussion aimed at both job seekers and employers. Lifescape will be offering an employer-focused presentation on assistive technology, and Zeal’s executive director, Brienne Maner, will present on entrepreneurship. 

The panel discussion will feature employers and employees discussing their experiences in the workplace, and there will also be dedicated time for walking around the different booths.

Bierle says raising awareness is key, and he hopes hiring people with disabilities will someday become a mainstream occurrence that doesn’t require an event like this to make the benefits clear. 

According to Kerkvliet, people with disabilities consistently prove themselves to be high-value employees. It all comes down to introducing them to employers.

“Statistics have shown that employees with disabilities are very dependable, show up on time, show up to work every day, and they often boost the morale in a business,” Kerkvliet said. “It’s important to build those connections because people with disabilities are often isolated and don’t have those networking opportunities.” 

According to Ability for Hire, the recent employment rate for people in South Dakota without disabilities is 82.5 percent, while the rate for people with disabilities is only 51.3 percent. The Opportunity Career Expo provides an ideal networking scenario for both employers and job seekers.

“We know these job seekers are serious about obtaining employment if they’re putting forth the effort to prepare and attend,” Kerkvliet said. “It’s really a good opportunity for businesses to utilize an untapped market.” 

Employers who have already signed on to take part in the expo include Raven Industries, Five Star Call Centers, Avera Health, and the Sioux Falls School District, among others. The employer fee is $99.00 for a booth, and the registration deadline is April 1.

For job seekers looking to prepare in advance, the Goodwill Job Center of Sioux Falls is hosting two Expo Preparation Events, on March 31 and April 1. The events will include job interview tips, resume development, and assistance with professional clothing selection. To register for one of these free events, call (605) 357-6171. 

The Opportunity Career Expo will be held at Augustana University’s Elmen Center from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 7. Email with any questions or to request accommodations. Admission to the event is free and walk-ins are welcome, but Kerkvliet encourages job seekers to register online in advance.