New immersive experience program gives students a look at forest products industries

By David Fleming

virginia techSix Virginia Tech undergraduates recently stepped onto the trading floor at Richmond International Forest Products. Wearing headsets that allowed them to listen to negotiations in real time, the students followed along as traders for the company worked with sawmills and purchasers to negotiate prices for spruce, pine, and other forest materials.

A few days earlier, two other students visited the Richmond branch of LandCare, a commercial landscaping company. Following a field crew to job sites, students were introduced to some of the challenges of caring for and maintaining outdoor spaces.

These day-in-the-life experiences, the first in the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s new immersive experience program, were exactly what John Freeborn envisioned when he took on the role of the college’s director of employer relations in May 2019.

“I see this program as an opportunity for our students to learn about a specific area of an industry,” Freeborn said. “The experience we’re looking to provide hits a really important spot between a company tour and an internship. We’re giving students the ability to get to know an organization and a career path in a nontraditional, somewhat informal setting.”

At Richmond International Forest Products, a dozen employees joined the student group for a casual dinner and ice breaker event at a local restaurant before a full schedule of activities the following day designed to familiarize them with the ins and outs of the lumber trade. The students sat in on a morning marketing meeting, listened to a presentation about the company’s history and vision, and then joined traders on the trading floor.

Afterwards, they had lunch with the company’s four newest traders, who shared how they got into the business as well as their perspectives on starting careers. In the afternoon, the company’s leadership team worked with the students on setting career goals and finished the day with a discussion about the company’s strong emphasis on teamwork.

“I was surprised by the strong, family-like unity they showed us,” said Jake Davis, a senior forestry major. “The employees really care about each other and make sure they help each other out both inside and outside the office. It’s a company culture that is really hard to find nowadays.”

The kind of engagement that the program offers is valuable for students preparing to enter the job market, noted Brian Simmons, branch manager of LandCare’s Richmond office.

“Students can be in a kind of limbo about what they’re going to do post-college. To have the opportunity to show them the possibilities that exist in our industry was exciting for all of us,” said Simmons, who first heard about the program while attending the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s annual career fair.

The students who visited LandCare learned about the company’s core values, growth strategy, and culture before traveling to two job sites — one suburban and one urban — to interact with field crews about the work they do. Later, they had a networking dinner with employees before returning the next day to learn about customer service and leadership structures of the company.

“It was helpful to get a feel for the day-to-day workings of a large company like LandCare,” said senior John Kese. “I found that it was useful practice for the interview process, and talking to management there helped me work on my skills for interacting in a business atmosphere.”

The concept for the day-in-the-life experiences was the brainchild of alumna Megan Schnizler, a trader for Richmond International Forest Products who received a geography degree from Virginia Tech in 2012. When she heard about Freeborn’s new role, she knew she wanted to bring some Hokies to Richmond.

“There are so many job opportunities out there for graduates and so many different paths you can take to a career,” Schnizler said. “I thought about how great it would be if we invited students to come and learn what we’re doing here, and then a handful of other companies did the same thing.”

After his visit to Richmond International Forest Products, Davis said the chance to see how a company works firsthand is a valuable opportunity to gain confidence as he looks to start a career. “This program is extremely beneficial to students because it helps us experience a relatively untapped job market that is really taking off. It’s also a great opportunity to make connections that can help with jobs and internships. It’s made me feel much more confident in what career path I want to take when I graduate.”

Looking ahead, Freeborn anticipates that these immersive experiences will benefit employers as well as students. “The flip side is that the program allows companies an opportunity to talk about what they do to students who may pursue internships or careers with the employer. Then, as students share their experience within their peer networks, they can generate additional interest in future immersive programs and in the participating companies.”

Schnizler said that a connection like the one Freeborn envisions is already in the works at Richmond International Forest Products. “We’ve already received emails back from students saying they’re interested in internships or thanking us for putting on this program. I’m very excited about it, and I hope that the students will raise awareness of the lumber industry, that what we do here is a real thing, and that it’s a great job opportunity for graduates.”


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