Succeeding at a Job Fair

Succeeding at a Job Fair

Tony Lee

The popularity of job fairs waxes and wanes with the economy, and in our current downturn, these gatherings are back again with a vengeance. From big cities to small towns, job fairs are being organized by national job boards, local chambers of commerce and all sorts of organizations in-between. And there's no doubt that bringing together employers that have available jobs to meet with eager job hunters is a great concept. The catch from the job seekers' perspective is in making sure you have the correct expectations before heading off to a local fair.

When a laid off project manager was preparing to attend a recent job fair in a New Jersey suburb, for example, he focused on the same things he thought about when he first attended job fairs 10 years ago: the look of his suit, the quality of his resume, and the best way to avoid traffic while getting to the hotel ballroom. Sadly, things have changed, and he was in for a big surprise.

The fair was scheduled to run from 9am to 3pm, and the manager arrived around 10:30am. He was greeted by a line of fellow job hunters that, as far as he could tell, stretched from the ballroom down two hallways and into another empty ballroom. And that was just to register to attend.

By the time he registered and reached the ballroom with employer booths, it was 12:10pm, and each booth had a long line of hopeful applicants. He tried to find the employers he wanted to target, but found it hard to navigate through the overcrowded room. He eventually saw one target employer and moved to the back of their line. Unlike the line to register, the line to see the employer moved quickly, but there was a reason. The recruiter at the front (in this case, a recent college graduate who had joined the company just a few months earlier) handed each candidate a sheet explaining their open positions. The sheet also asked each candidate to visit the company's web site for more information and to apply. When the manager attempted to ask questions about one of the available jobs, the recruiter said she didn't have time to discuss job opportunities with each attendee, and to please visit the website. The job hunter managed to chat a little longer, but it was clear the recruiter was overwhelmed by the applicant response.

Not all employers that day took this approach, but many did. A health-care company with a wider range of open positions had more recruiters and seemed willing to spend more time with each applicant. The manager asked about a project coordinator role the company was advertising, and he was directed to wait in another line to talk to a recruiter who was handling that position. Three other candidates stood ahead of him in line, and by the time he reached the recruiter, who was sitting at a table behind a small screen, three more candidates were behind him. It was obvious that the recruiter he met with was tired, having met with many other applicants by mid-afternoon. But the manager got his questions asked and answered, and thought he made a good impression. However, the candidate never heard another word even though the recruiter said they may be interested in a second interview.

To be sure, not all candidates have this type of job fair experience. Fairs that are targeted to a specific industry, function or company tend to attract smaller, more focused recruiters and candidates. The same is true for fairs in smaller towns, and those targeting entry-level or seasonal employees. And even many larger fairs offer benefits beyond trying to meet with recruiters, such as those that provide free seminars from experienced career counselors, as well as resume critiques and other free or low-cost services. And of course, if you use your time at the fair to network with other job hunters who are seeking similar positions, you may tap into great sources of job information.

But if your sole reason for attending a large fair is to seek quality time to discuss your application with an interested recruiter, you likely will be sorely disappointed. Here are a few tips to help make your job fair visit as productive as possible:

By beating the crowd, your odds grow of speaking with recruiters who are fresh and more willing to spend time with you. The chance also grows that you can meet with the three or four best fits for your talent early on and leave before spending your whole day in lines.

No sense in standing in line for a company that isn't hiring your function or skill level. In advance of the fair, visit the Virtual Job Fair (if one exists) on the job fair organizer's website to see what employers are attending. If the VJF posts job openings from attending companies, go ahead and apply to get a leg up on other job fair attendees. If not, then visit each employer's website to review their opportunities. Also spend time reviewing each company's site, reading their latest annual report and other relevant materials. With this information in hand, you can better target employers and have a pitch ready for each recruiter.

An elevator pitch is a 30 to 45 second statement that summarizes your background and career goals (the name comes from your ability to make the pitch between floors in an elevator). The pitch should be tailored to include your skills that are most relevant to the specific needs of each company.

Even if you're in different fields, you can cover more ground and report to each other if you meet with a company that's looking for skills that your colleague can fill. If you don't know other job hunters, find and attend a local meeting of job hunters. The benefits are multiple. For instance, it's a great way to alleviate the loneliness of job hunting. Job clubs typically are hosted by churches, synagogues and community groups, and are advertised in community newspapers and web sites.

Include any suggestions or next steps the recruiter recommends, and try your best to get a business card or at least an email address from every recruiter you meet so you can follow up effectively.

  • Arrive early and pre-register if possible
  • Research company opportunities in advance
  • Develop your "elevator pitch"
  • Recruit a fellow job hunter to attend with you
  • After each recruiter meeting, jot down notes summarizing your conversation

Tony Lee is the Publisher of and

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