Return North: Career fair hopes to lure workers to the U.P.

While looking for jobs in the greater Grand Rapids area during the COVID-19 pandemic, Luke Comstock discovered a virtual career fair focused on attracting talent to the Upper Peninsula while he was on a hunting trip. 

Driving from his camp to a nearby town, Comstock found a parking lot with a hotspot and attended the online event. He was offered two jobs and accepted a position at the Houghton-based GS Engineering.

“I accomplished more in an hour, in a parking lot with (a hotspot connection), than I had for a month sitting in front of my computer trying to do online job searching,” Comstock said. 

Shortly after, he and his family moved to the Keweenaw Peninsula, officially becoming U.P. residents, which had been a dream of his for years. 

What’s happening?

MTEC SmartZone is hosting its annual Return North Professional Careers Fair, which is presented by Upper Peninsula Michigan Works! this year and supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). The event is aimed at attracting alumni, former residents and anyone interested in living and working in the rural U.P. This year, Return North will include both virtual and in-person sessions, which are free to attend. 

The virtual segment will take place from 3 p.m.-6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, while the in-person events will be held concurrently at the Continental Fire Co. in Houghton and at Ore Dock Brewing Co. in Marquette – from 3 p.m.-6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17. Job seekers interested in participating in the virtual event can register online by visiting

What to expect  

More than 20 U.P.-based companies have signed up for the virtual event;  numerous industries are represented, including engineering, technology, cybersecurity, insurance and risk management, health and human services, higher education, law enforcement, manufacturing and more. The online career fair will be conducted through Brazen, a leading virtual hiring event platform.

“What’s nice is the platform is set up to look and feel like an actual in-person career fair where each company has their own virtual booth,” said Jason Mack, vice president of Business Development at MTEC SmartZone. “Businesses could have images or links to videos to help attendees learn about them virtually.” 

Job seekers will be able to enter any virtual booths of businesses that have job openings which interest them. There, they can have conversations with that respective company representative, Mack said. “We’re hoping that some of the people that attend virtually will be inspired enough to come to an in-person event as well,” he added. 

How the initiative began?

In 2017, MTEC SmartZone of Houghton held its first career fair with hopes of attracting talented individuals, specifically students, to local high-tech startups. “It didn’t take us long to realize that there was a greater need here in our community for existing companies to find experienced talent,” Mack said. 

The event then expanded to include the Marquette area and eventually partnered with Back to Michigan, a state-wide talent attraction group, to include the entire U.P.
Why is it important?

“Return North is a great opportunity for young, or established, professionals to bring their talents back home,” said Bill Raymond, CEO of Upper Peninsula Michigan Works! in a press release. “UP Michigan Works! will help facilitate a smooth transition back to the Upper Peninsula, so people can settle in and enjoy all the amenities that a U.P. lifestyle offers while contributing to the growth of a vibrant economy.”

Looking ahead

MTECH SmartZone wants to continue hosting virtual events in conjunction with the in-person fair since they’ve been successful. So far, nearly 80 people have signed up for the upcoming virtual event this year, Mack said.

 “You don’t go to the U.P. by accident, you go there on purpose,” he added. “And so, the only way we can truly connect with people from outside of the area is to convince them to come up here on purpose. When we do that, they typically see how beautiful the U.P. is and once they find a job opportunity, they often want to move their families here.”
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