BENTON HARBOR — Robert Opande found time to practice his interviewing skills in a professional setting Wednesday.

And he wasn’t alone.

Among 37 other students, Opande took part in Mock Interview Day at Whirlpool Corp.’s Riverview Campus in Benton Harbor. The mock interviews are part of an annual collaboration between Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates and Whirlpool’s employee resource group known as the FOCUS Network.

Conducting the interviews were appliance maker employees, who volunteered to sit through the session and provide feedback. Students were given a fake job description to practice applying for and asked to develop an improvement plan with the feedback.

Students were dressed to impress and sat two per table during their interviews. The students were there as part of the JMG program, which was created to lower dropout rates and help those in search of their high school diploma.

Benton Harbor, Cassopolis, Dowagiac, Hartford and the Bridge Academy had students present for the interviews. JMG, now a statewide program, serves more than 500 students in Southwest Michigan and over 2,900 across the state.

“This is getting us prepared for when we go in for real interviews,” said Opande, who joined the Bridge Academy in September. “My job specialist (at the Bridge Academy) helped me with a lot of things inside of school and outside of school.”

Guest speaker Camille Pierce, a senior director of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Whirlpool, challenged students to learn from their experiences.

Opande did just that during his evaluation.

“I was told I had good eye contact and I spoke up loud and clear,” he said. “He told me to make sure I sat up straight when I introduce myself, though.”

The dropout prevention program includes high school students. The dropout recovery program involves people ages 16-24 who are working toward their GED or diploma.

Mock Interview Day was created by a former Whirlpool employee. It would later be taken on by Kinexus and FOCUS.

Jan Ennis, senior director of engagement at Youth Solutions, said the ongoing partnership between the two organizations is part of a long-term strategy to develop the talent pipeline in Southwest Michigan. 

“Companies and industries can’t find enough skilled workers, which starts with education and training,” Ennis said. “When we have upwards of 500 adults dropping out of high school every year in this area, they’re taking themselves out of the workforce immediately. It’s important to keep them in school and on that career path.”

Erick Fisher, a care advisor for customer service at Whirlpool, was among several volunteers who interviewed students.

He’s volunteered for the Mock Interview Day the past couple years. However, this year’s event included his son, who is a Benton Harbor High School graduate.

“I’m sure he’s hearing a lot of things I’ve talked to him about,” Fisher said. “On our regular time alone at home, I’ve given little tidbits to keep him going.”

Fisher learned about the event from a peer a few years ago, who now coordinates the interviews.

After his first volunteering experience, Fisher thought it was nice to see the community rally around students to help them get to that “next level.”

“Looking back, I wish I would have had something like this,” he said. “I love to see the kids develop their interviewing skills. I think it helps them personally when you are trying to branch out into the workforce.”

Jashawn Gaines, who attends the Bridge Academy, said he’s looking to get into construction or a trade that involves team building. He is also considering Lake Michigan College to further his education.

Gaines has been with the JMG program for a year and said he was glad to test out his interviewing skills Wednesday. He said activities like Mock Interview Day are what convinced him to join.

“People told me how different it was from a regular school setting. They have more one-on-one time with students, so there aren’t as many distractions,” Gaines said. “I know I still need practice because I kind of get nervous. I just need to focus on the small things.”

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