New Ways to Approach Job Fairs

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JBLM Veterans Jobs Summit Day 3 of 3
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Recently I attended a college job fair. My purpose was to help find a new intern for the paid position my department had available. Like all the other recruiters, I was there because we had a real job opening waiting to be matched with the best applicant. The weather outside was bad, and most recruiters were sensibly dressed to slog through the mush to get inside. The attendees, however, were suited up to make a good first impression and all were taken seriously just because they had already overcome Mother Nature's obstacles to be there.

One co-exhibitor was a state environmental consulting company. The exhibitors had travelled two hours in the bad weather because the school's solid environmental studies program had already fueled great applicants for them over the years. They were invested in finding the next great crop of talent to join their team. And that's why you should take job fairs seriously. Employers don't show up out of the goodness of their hearts. They're at a fair because they have a position to fill.In fact, every exhibitor there had open positions. Some were only internships, but others were managerial level. Most of the attendees wouldn't qualify for the managerial positions, but not all the attendees were students. Among them were graduate students, recent alumni, and mature alums who were back on the market. The latter were potentially great fits for the higher level positions.

When unemployed, I avoided fairs because they felt too much like depressing cattle calls, particularly for older job seekers. This was my first job fair as a recruiter, making the experience more pleasant, but also giving me a new perspective on the value of job fairs.

CNN Business writer Maribel Aber advocates for job fairs because they let recruiters put a face on applications. Career expert Nicole Williams, a columnist for US News & World Report, notes that fairs let you practice your elevator pitch. Both are right, but the value of job fairs is far more, particularly for young job seekers. Fairs give job seekers of all ages the opportunity to hear directly from recruiters on what's available in the job market and how applicants may need to bolster their pitch to rise above the fray. The key is to ask the right questions to maximize your time with a real live recruiter who's there to talk to you, not just to take your resume.

Here are some tips for approaching a job fair in a different way.

Ask for feedback. Go up to a recruiter at a less popular table, who may have more time, and ask them if they can give you a few minutes for honest feedback. Certainly ask them what types of positions they have open and introduce yourself, but then ask them if they can do you a favor and critique at least one place where your resume may be weak. This puts the recruiter in the position of counselor and you'll get real world feedback on how your resume is positioning you for success or failure. Some may tell you they don't have time, but others will be more than happy to serve as a five-minute advisor. If three different recruiters give you three different tips, you've gotten a real leg up on how to improve your resume when back at your computer.

Don't pre-judge. A few years ago, at the height of the recession, a mature friend of mine with experience in marketing for the manufacturing sector went to a fair after being laid off. She noticed a table staffed by an accounting firm that was being avoided by the rest of the attendees who were flocking to land their dream jobs with advertising and media agencies. She recognized the open table as an opportunity to be easily seen. She walked up and started the conversation by asking the recruiter why the accounting firm was at a marketing job fair. The answer was simple: they were recruiting for their first marketing person, and had grown to a point where they felt they now needed to expand past just hiring accountants. She asked the recruiter to tell her more about what they wanted. Yes, she got the job. She now has a successful career in professional services marketing, having already moved up the ladder with two other companies after landing that first position.

Practice conversations. Not every encounter has to be a pitch. Some can be conversations. A job fair is a safe place to ask a recruiter for suggestions and ideas for an improved job hunt. It's the art of the inactive job hunt. One student came to our table looking for a specific type of job completely out of our area of expertise. However, her job goals were very similar to those of one of my own daughters, so we had a great conversation about tips and tricks my daughter felt helped her in landing both her first and second jobs. This kind of conversation can be started just by admitting, "I'd like to hear more about what you do, and was wondering if you had any suggestions for how I might find companies that you feel would be a good match for me?" It's almost guaranteed the recruiter will at least ask to look at your resume, ask you a few questions, and start to engage. Ironically, this type of encounter can lead to a job offer if the recruiter finds you personable, intelligent and engaging. It can also result in a lead if the recruiter knows a colleague more closely aligned with your desired type of work.

Channel bravery. It's frightening to go up to strangers, but one value of job fairs is in learning the art of going up to someone and introducing yourself. Don't worry about landing a job. Use the experience to gather lots of free advice on what employers look for on resumes, or what makes a resume stand out from others. You can ask if the resume format works, or if your high school experience helps or hurts in positioning you for certain types of jobs. I told one student to remove his experience as a bus boy from years earlier, as it added no value to the types of jobs he was now seeking, and detracted attention from his more relevant experiences.

Recruiters are at job fairs to talk and engage. They are likely the least scary recruiters you'll ever meet. It's an opportunity that should be embraced. Go in prepared, dressed for success, and willing to make your pitch. But also go in willing to listen, discuss, and learn. That's the hidden value in a job fair that is often overlooked. While everyone's working so hard to put their best foot forward, many forget to use the opportunity to hear first-hand from a recruiter how they can tailor their resumes, ask for honest feedback, and learn how to practice the art of the job conversation.
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