Recently, I was invited to speak about how to utilize best the time spent at a job fair. Facing over 300 job seekers who are eager to find their next positions is nerve-wracking, so I shared my personal experience about how I found my first job through a job fair. At that time, I was an international student who struggled with language and cultural barriers. In my last year of university, I realized that my network was minimal. Then I asked myself – what is the best and fastest way to connect with potential employers? Then I started attending job fairs. I thoroughly prepared myself for each one I attended. Fortunately, my careful preparation allowed me to secure my first job!
In my early years as an HR person, I represented my employer at many job fairs. I did so at a time when the economy was booming. Hiring, especially for a non-oil & gas company was challenging. I had to vie with employers with booths next to mine just to get job seekers to stop at my booth instead of theirs. At that time, job fairs were to promote the brand of the company and to recruit people.
Throughout the years, I have continued to go to as many job fairs as time permits, although I am not looking for work. It keeps my finger on the pulse of the market and gets me acquainted with industry people.
The beginning of the year is usually when job fairs happen. I was particularly excited about the job fairs held at the universities where I teach – what a convenient opportunity for the students to mingle with potential employers! Unfortunately, many students told me that going to job fairs is a waste of their time. They find employers’ attitudes and manners make a considerable difference in their experience at job fairs. Some employers would tell the students to just apply online. Others would say that they are not hiring. Students find these approaches very frustrating. Then I asked them, “Why do you go to a job fair?”
“To look for jobs!” Several of them shouted out at the same time. I appreciated the passion.
“Then how come you meet these employers who tell you to just apply on their website or that they are not hiring?” I hate to disappoint them but felt that I should break the hard truth to them: “Job fairs are not where you look for jobs anymore.”
A few minutes of silence showed me that the students never think like an employer. For employers, in this economic situation, they are generally not short of applicants, although I still see some employers looking to hire at job fairs. Job fairs these days are more of a networking opportunity for employers - to promote their company’s brand and to continuously participate in post-secondary and general community activities. For job seekers, a job fair is and should also be a networking opportunity. If job seekers can land an interview right there, congratulations! However, many job seekers who go to a job fair lack polished networking skills and are not ready to present themselves to potential employers.
How Can You Prepare Yourself for a Job Fair?
Do some research about the employers who are attending; select your targeted employers to speak to; learn a few things about these organizations and write down questions you have for them. Remember, a job fair is an in-person interaction with potential employers that you will not otherwise have by just applying online! Ask the employers about their hiring process, culture, products, services, upcoming projects, and challenges, etc.
Think through your dress code, eye contact, smile, handshake, and other elements of body language – all these little things help to make a great “first impression”.
Have clean copies of your resumes ready to hand out because there may still be those employers who take your resume on the spot. If your resume is not updated, then update it now!
Prepare to answer some common interview questions.
Present yourself with confidence, offer a handshake, and a smile to impress the employers with a professional image. Think like an employer – if you are standing behind the booth, what type of job seekers would you be more inclined to talk to?
Approach the employers at the booths as you would approach a stranger at a networking event – greetings, talk a bit about yourself, show interest in the other party, and let the dialogue flow. Many times, I have seen job seekers approach an employer without any passion and start the conversation by asking, “What does your company do?” “What jobs are you hiring?” “How much are you paying?” etc. The employers would only answer the question in a sentence or two; then the conversation would end. Think from the employer’s perspective - employers at a job fair talk with hundreds of job seekers who ask similar questions. The answers can typically be found via their website. What will set you apart?
If the organization does not have a job for you, the employer representatives can still share industry or career tips. Be appreciative of any information they offer.
Ask for contact information, whether it is to obtain a business card, or add the employer on LinkedIn. The more connections you have, the bigger the chance you will have of finding employment.