June 3, 2020 — Just as Mapleton High School teacher Juline Walker was getting into her Introduction to Business class at the beginning of the semester, the pandemic shut the schools down. While there have been downsides to the virtual classes, Walker believes that there have also been positives.
“I think the students have seen their teachers have to adapt to a new format and see us learning new technologies,” Walker said. “The reality is, whatever career they go into, whether it’s business or the medical field or finance, they’re going to have to adapt and stay current on newer technologies and information. I think students learning these skills of adapting and being flexible are going to be transferable skills they’re going to take with them beyond high school as well.”
But one of the biggest questions that was raised during the time was what the future will look like for her students in the world of business.
“I think it is definitely making them think about business in a different way than how they were thinking about it in the beginning of the year,” Walker said.
From record unemployment to dire predictions by some economists, students like 10th grader Opal Burruss have taken the opportunity to think about what the job market will look like when they graduate.
“I’m not sure about that,” she said. “The job market is so broad, and within areas there will be more jobs than others. I think right now, there’s a lot less jobs than tourism jobs. There’s still jobs in technology. It really depends on where you look at the job market.”
It’s a conversation that leads to some big questions about the future of the region, from how an isolated economy like Mapleton and the Siuslaw region as a whole can grow, and what students like Burruss have to prepare for in an uncertain world.
Walker’s class has multiple goals, starting with teaching students the basics of business.
“It’s really cool, we’ve been doing various business things,” Burruss said. “We’ve been learning the basics of what’s been happening in the business world, and how you set up a business, and what a nonprofit is. All the basic knowledge stuff.”
They talked about investing in the future and marketing, both how to implement it and how to understand it to become a wiser customer.
“It’s understanding how advertising is affecting us, even in our day to day decisions,” Walker said.
And it also exists to help the Mapleton and Siuslaw economy grow.
“A lot of the other businesses we see in our area are small business owners, whether they’re working construction or finance or restaurants,” Walker said. “Having some of those skills I think is really valuable for students who might want to relocate and actually come back to their home area. A lot of times, in small rural areas, we lose some of our students because we don’t have the economy to provide them a living wage. This kind of gives students the opportunity to say ‘Hey, I have this business idea and I can actually make this happen here in my local area.’”
Burruss initially took the class because she thought it looked cool.
“There’s some classes that look more challenging than others, and this one look more challenging,” she said. “I wanted something more challenging. I thought it would be interesting.”
One of the events students were able to participate in was the Virtual Business Scholarship Challenge, a national competition where students would build their own virtual business, and be able to see how they might perform in the real world.
“We were going to start doing it in class, but the coronavirus shut down all the schools,” Burruss said. “Miss Walker emailed the business class and told us the instructions. People who wanted to do it, did it.”
Burruss thought it would be fun, so dove in. Competitors get to choose different businesses, from grocery stores, electronics and sporting goods. Burruss picked grocery stores at first.
“I found grocery stores very hard to run in the simulation at least. I don’t know how true to life it was,” she said. “But I wasn’t making much profit, so I ran an electronics store.”
She would set her business online, including price margins. And then a computer simulation would run the store with staff coming in and out.
“After a week, you would look at reports on how your store was doing and you would look at if you had enough employees, or too many employees. You would look at customer comments,” Burruss said. “I liked the customer comments a lot. And then you make your adjustments and then play it for another week. And you’d advertise. Basically, it’s simulating you running a business.”
Burruss looked at the process as a puzzle, making profits and reality fit together.
“Puzzling how to make a profit was really cool, and learning about all the ins and outs of doing business,” she said.
She learned two hard rules so far.
“You definitely don’t want to be understaffed,” she said. “If you are understaffed, then there aren’t enough people to help the customers and check them out, so a bunch of people leave because there’s no help.”
She also stressed advertising, “It gets the customers to your store.”
Burruss did well with the store, having it earn over $15 million dollars over the course of the simulation. While she didn’t win, Walker praised Burruss’ dedication to the project, and honored her with a Class Achievement Award.
For the last assignment, students had to develop a business pitch with a catch.
“Instead of creating an entire business plan, they’re going to be coming up with a product or service that would thrive during the pandemic and afterwards,” Walker said. “They’re thinking about Mapleton retail stores and online stores. They want it to be an essential business that could stay open during the pandemic.”
Since the shutdowns began, the class has been talking about the differences between those businesses that sell luxury items and those that sell essential ones. But Burruss’ experiences with grocery and electronics stores showed how difficult a position the economy as a whole, and small towns like Mapleton, are in.
“If you’re functioning in a COVID-19 scenario, some of the electronics stores aren’t doing as well as the grocery stores,” Walker said. “When the economy is doing poorly, people still need to buy groceries. They need to buy products that help them wash their clothes. They’re probably not going to be buying a lot of expensive cars. They’re not going to be getting the newest iPhone. Anything that could be considered a luxury item, I think they’re realizing they could be big money makers when the economy is doing well, but when it’s doing poorly, those are things that might just have to go out of business entirely, depending on what the business is.”
One way to stay afloat without going the route of food distribution was online, be it food delivery apps or selling products from a marketplace.
“I think that would be a new way it might change,” Burruss said. “You might have a lot more jobs open in tech fields. Making websites and programing this and that, that kind of thing. But if you’re going to make a business whose goal is to help build the economy, you’d have to find employees in Mapleton who are good at tech and business. That would be kind of a unique job that is not super common around here, as far as I know.”
And that’s just some of the issues that Mapleton and the entire region will be grappling with in the coming months and years.
“It’s been a really great opportunity to talk about business and how closures have affected businesses, and which businesses are still doing well, or doing exceptionally well, during the closure, and which businesses are doing very poorly,” Walker said. “And looking at how the pandemic has affected the economy as a whole. Really getting them to take a look at how national and global situations can affect national business.”
And it’s helping students think about the future.
“Now the students are having the opportunity to think about all those things and come up with a business idea that could be started during this pandemic, but also something that can continue to be successful, even after the pandemic is over,” Walker said.
While the class has got them thinking, the future is anything but certain.
“It’s kind of hard to tell that right now,” Burruss said. “Everything is changing so much daily because of coronavirus, that it’s really hard to assess what it’s going to be like in a year, even. For that one, you’d have to wait and watch. To predict that, there has to be some amount of stability to figure out how you could make that happen.”
Walker said students like Burruss have stuck with the business class through extraordinary circumstances, and done so with “willingness” and “grit.”
But Burruss isn’t planning to put her grit into the world of business in the future — she doesn’t want to be a business owner.
“I don’t want to be in charge and responsible for that type of thing. It’s definitely a cool profession, and it’s really cool what they do. There’s so much they have to do to make sure their company runs well. It’s a tough job and it’s just really cool,” she said.
Instead, Burruss wants to go to college to become a teacher or an architect.
“I want to start out by going to a college, getting a good degree in history or architecture, something I want to do that has a lot of open ended jobs in it,” she said.
Burrus said she didn’t know what kind of jobs would be available for her possible careers in the future, or what they would look like. She agreed that the best thing she can do is work hard now and do the best she can.
“A little while ago, we wouldn’t have to think of any of this,” she said. “And so I think kind of right now, it’s the work you need to do to ensure you could have a good future. And hope that stuff stabilizes out and hope it’s okay when you need a job.”