campus, career, job fairs, job search

Job Fairs: Are they worth it? And how can you maximize your ROI?

Hello! Sorry I missed my Monday post. I was out of office (and out of pocket) that day–but I’m back on schedule today. More tomorrow.

I started my career in recruiting in 1998. At that time, the economy was booming in Seattle. Dot-coms were exploding; Boeing was experiencing a high production period; Amazon was barely 4 years old and growing exponentially; Washington Mutual was busily becoming the nation’s 5th largest financial services institution through both organic growth and M&A activity (at least two mergers doubled the size of the company overnight).

This led to tremendous competition for talent in nearly all sectors, from warehouse workers (someone’s gotta ship all of those Amazon packages) to electronic assembly workers (gotta build wiring harnesses for Boeing airplanes) to tech workers (over 18? Ever written a line of HTML code? Great! You’re a web designer! Here’s a $10k signing bonus and 1 million stock options in myterribledotcomidea.com!).

At the time, I worked for a contingent staffing company as a regional employee charged with helping all of our offices source talent. One way we did this was to attend job fairs–a lot of them. This was long before LinkedIn, and while Monster and CareerBuilder were great resources not everyone was using them. On average, we’d do 100+ job fairs a year. Over the years, especially when I’ve worked in campus recruiting, I’ve continued to do a lot of job fairs. I’ve probably done over 500 job fairs at this point. And in every job fair over the past 10+ years, I’ve used the same clipboard.


(I once had to have a Seattle Police officer chase someone down who had stolen it from our booth. No joke.)

So–it’s 2013. Are job fairs still a valid way of possibly finding a new job?

The answer is, “It depends on what type of position you are seeking.”

  • If you are looking for an opportunity in customer service, warehouse, sales, retail, restaurant/hospitality–there are great job fairs that are targeted to one or more of those specialized career areas that attract employers who are seeking great talent.
  • They are also worth attending for college students seeking an internship or FTE position, to learn more about prospective future employers and to practice your professional communication skills if you are earlier in your academic career.
  •  I generally do not think that career fairs are an effective job search tool for most upper-level professional positions or IT/tech roles (outside of a career fair held by a university focused on hiring interns/graduates).  Dice (through their subsidiary, Targeted Job Fairs) holds more IT focused recruiting events; I haven’t attended one so I can’t speak to whether they are effective. 
  • Career fairs sponsored by state one-stop centers like WorkSource here in WA can be good resources for mid-career job seekers who are going through retraining and attempting to make connections with employers in their new targeted industry, or if you have been recently laid off and are seeking new employment.

So how can you get the most out of a career fair? Treat it like you would a job interview–with a few exceptions. 

  • Do your homework. Nearly every career fair is going to promote the employers that are attending; that’s how they get you there. Review the list of attending employers. Learn about them. Look at their current open positions and determine which are a fit; apply to them beforehand if possible. Target the employers you want to speak with.
  • Dress to impress, but also for comfort. Job fairs usually involve putting too many people into a space that quickly becomes overheated, standing for long periods of time, walking around a lot, etc. You want to dress to make a great first impression with any employer you speak with–but also not feel terribly uncomfortable if you are in a very warm space/have to stand for a long period of time. Think about clothes that breathe and shoes that are supportive but nice looking. 
  • Bring a portfolio that has resumes, a notepad, a pen, and somewhere to stash business cards. You can buy a nice portfolio for $15 on Amazon. It makes you look much more professional and is immensely easier than trying to carry around a bag or briefcase.
  •  Think twice about having that cup of coffee, onion sandwich, or smoking that cigar just before entering the job fair. We’ve all had the experience of meeting the person with ‘death breath’ that is also a ‘close talker’. You can’t really focus on what they are saying–just that you want to get away, right? That happens when you are a recruiter at a job fair–many times a day. Don’t be the person that they might otherwise be interested in talking with–but instead want nothing more than to spray you with a fire hose filled with Scope. (Side note: I’m never, ever without breath mints due to my job fair years. In fact I popped one while writing this.)
  • When you arrive–strategically plan your attack. Stack rank the ‘must see’ employers first and determine where they are on the map. If possible, arrive just as the job fair starts so you have a better chance of not being stuck in a seemingly never-ending line of job seekers waiting for their turn to talk with the recruiter. Plan a route through the job fair so you can hit the employers you really want to talk with–and plan to circle back to the ones that are too busy.
  • Plan and practice your pitch. About 50% of the job seekers that approach your booth will ask one of two initial questions: 1) “So, um…what does your company do?” –or 2) “So, uh, what  are you hiring for?” Don’t be this person. Recruiters almost automatically write them off as a waste of time as they anxiously look at the other 10 people that are patiently waiting their turn to talk with them–some of whom are giving up and moving on. Once you get a chance to speak to a recruiter, you want to maximize your time with them. Here’s an example: Hi, I’m _________.  I applied to the Senior Customer Service Specialist position open and would welcome an opportunity to speak with you about the position. Would you be the right person here to learn more about that opportunity?” In doing this, you demonstrate that you did your homework; you have applied for their position and therefore are a serious job seeker; and you have a relevant question about the position. If I’m the recruiter, I’m going to think I’ve hit pay dirt.
  • Skip the booth schwag. If you are a serious job seeker, you’re not there to pick up another squishy foam stress ball in the shape of a lightbulb; you are there to make a connection with a potential decision maker–or get the contact info for a decision maker. A bag full of job fair trinkets + lack of any serious knowledge of our company/open positions = waste of time to a recruiter.
  • Get contact information–and FOLLOW UP. Job fairs are a unique opportunity to connect directly with a potential decision maker with a targeted employer–something that the typical application process doesn’t allow. Always ask for a business card and/or contact information for the person who manages hiring for the position (or type of position) you are targeting–and FOLLOW UP by email after the career fair. 99% of career fair attendees never do this. It’s a great way to stand out.


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