Who Should Go To A Job Fair? YOU Should!

Many people in our business are absolutists. They speak of things in recruiting that “always” work or things that “never” work. Well, it is a safe bet when evaluating advice from someone professing to be an “expert” to ignore anything they say beginning with the words “always” and “never”. (Before sending me a reply, please note I said it is a “safe bet,” I did not say “always” or “never.” I never do. Or is it, I always don’t?) Well anyway, I routinely attend job fairs and am routinely successful. I have hired every level of candidate, from entry to executive. Although I work primarily in high tech and financial services, I have found ever type and skill- profile candidate at job fairs at one time or another–even candidates for senior and sophisticated level engineering and engineering management openings. I have found top-notch sales and marketing professionals, senior players in financial services and health care. I have successfully recruited administrative support, human resources, and all other professional occupations at career fairs. Do I always hit pay dirt? No. When you go up on the web today, will you fill all your requisitions? (I didn’t think so.) Even the best search firms in the country rarely bat “a thousand.” It seems that job fairs suffer from a “one chance to fail” client mindset we do not impose on our other sources. Well, before I discount any product, I always ask myself, “Why do so many people seem to be selling it and why do so many people seem to be buying it? How do others succeed at something at which I fail?” The failure of a recruiting tool can often be a matter of “how the tool was used” rather than an inherent fault with the tool itself. These days, most job fair organizers provide an area for the exhibitors to get a soda, cup of coffee, or a quick snack during the “show.” It certainly gives your voice a needed break and infuses you with the essential nutrients staffing professionals need in the new century (sugar and caffeine). However, what is most interesting is the range of comments you will hear about the same job fair. One representative appears “pumped up” due to the excellent candidate flow and excellent candidate quality. Another representative is livid due to the total waste of time this fair has become for him or her. They have no candidate flow, the few candidates they see lack all the qualifications required and are not even in related industries. How is it possible to have two such extreme reactions to the same event? To figure out how, walk out onto the floor and observe the two representatives at work. Then ask yourself the question, “If I were a candidate, which company would I walk up to?” Most company representatives come to a career fair with no recruiting plan, no marketing strategy, and little or no effort to implement the basic principles of sales and marketing. This is the first mistake, because in the new century, successful staffing will only come as the result of a recruiting plan based on the same principles of a successful sales campaign and good solid market knowledge. A career fair is like a trade show–people come to sell, people come to buy. As I tell fellow recruiters, “It isn’t that they are not buying, it’s that you are not selling!” So, how do you “sell” at a job fair? (Some people see the glass as half full, others see it as half empty. Me, I find out where you keep the water and fill the darn thing up. Carpe Diem isn’t just a cute clich? from a movie!) Well, here are what I consider the essential elements of a successful job fair campaign: Know the players, or don’t expect to win. Too many decisions are made about job fairs based solely on price. If someone offers to sell you a Jaguar for $2,000, I doubt they mean the car made in England. If they do, you?ve got to wonder what slight imperfection has discounted a $75,000 car down to $2,000. As in any product environment, you get what you pay for. Or, more importantly, you do not get what you do not pay for. Get references from known companies that have attended the event. How long has the job fair company been in business? Are job fairs their only or primary product? If not, what other products are they trying to sell through the fair? The quality of the fair will be driven by the financial importance of the fair to the provider. If this is their main source of income, they have more reasons to put on a good show. Consider the time of year (do not go to a job fair planned for December 23rd!), location, access, and talent pool in the region of the fair. Do your homework, and seek relevant information. Get a contract, read it, then ask yourself: is this a well thought out event or merely something “thrown” together? Are you doing business, or “getting the business”? Buyers beware of rules in all areas, even in selecting a quality and honest job fair vendor. Know the market! Plan before you go to the fair. Make sure you know who the other companies are who have committed to attending the fair. If you are a firm seeking I.S. professionals, you want to insure that a noteworthy number of the other attendees are I.S companies. Keep in touch with the vendor and determine how many other companies are committed to attending. A job fair that cannot attract companies may also have difficulty attracting candidates. But if you are looking for Senior Software Engineers and attend a fair with companies mainly from the retail industry, assume you will fail. But do not blame the job fair industry for your mistake. Plan ahead! Make sure there is an advertising campaign in place that will attract candidates. Be wary of those vendors that rely heavily on their database and Internet to attract candidates. The database probably consists of the candidates that attended the last show. The candidate they attract through the Internet is probably the same candidate you are attracting with your own Web site. Look for an advertising campaign that includes newspaper, radio, direct mail, and co-sponsorship with professional organizations if you expect a successful job fair event. In this age of electronic recruiting, newspapers, magazines, and radio are still very powerful tools. Consider running a companion ad of your own, and update your own Web site with job fair information. But ask for and analyze their advertising campaign. Rule of thumb: job fair organizers’ biggest cost is advertising. If they are cutting their costs, guess where they cut from? It makes no sense to me to go to a fair that nobody knows about and expect results. If the organizer has a program book, put an ad in there as well. Doing a job fair may range in cost from $1,500 to $6,000 based on the event format. Doing it well will cost 20% – 25% more. Advertise! Work with your job fair team before the event. It is a good idea to bring four people to the job fair. Or, four people per shift in case of a multiple day or all day events. With four people, you can have a break schedule of 45 minutes on, 15-minute break. You want to stay fresh, allow breaks. Do not “overstaff.? Nothing is less attractive than eight bored-looking company representatives in an 8? X 10? booth. Have a team meeting a few days before the event. Each person should have reviewed the open job requisition information before the show. Each person, staffing representative or hiring manager, should have their “designated specialties”–in essence, those areas they can discuss in detail and with authority. Have a workflow plan in place to prevent the result of a day’s screening becoming an unmanageable pile of paper. Try using file folders with a simple breakdown of needs by professional skill (Programmer, Finance, and Quality Assurance) or by Hiring Manager/Department (Operations, Marketing, and Technology.) Bring routing slips to the fair. As you finish with each candidate, write a few quick notes, pull any staples from the resume and place in the appropriate folder. Pulling the staples may seem like a small detail, but the next day when you can just load resumes into the copier already containing routing information, you will be glad you did this small step. All these details need to be discussed before the fair. If you do not arrive as a team with a plan, there will be no time at the fair to become a team. Organize! Consider the “look” you want to express and then insure it is communicated. There are companies with great booths that do poorly at job fairs. Conversely, there are companies with no booth that do extremely well. At the job fair, you have an average space of 8′ X 10′ to create an impression and sell your image. Use it well! Here are some simple “don’ts”:

  • Don’t use the table as a wall between you and the candidates. Push it back against the back of your booth. Put your display on top of it and have a small table running along the side of the booth to hold brochures, giveaway items and materials you want to be available to candidates. The information you do not want the candidates to see should be to the rear of the booth.
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  • Don’t sit in the chairs provided by the vendor. Ask that the chairs be removed. If you are tired, take a break.
  • Don’t talk and gossip among yourselves while standing in the booth. Nobody likes to interrupt conversations and many candidates will see your lack of interest as a sign of rudeness or apathy towards recruiting. Make eye contact, smile, nod your head to candidates as they pass. Be prepared to hand them recruiting materials. Look like you are “in the game.”
  • Don’t catch up on work in your booth.
  • Don’t use your cellular phone. Everybody has one now (we are not impressed!). If you are too busy to talk with candidates, they will go to one of your competitors and get a job. The company will not fall apart if it cannot reach you for an hour at a time (I know this is hard to believe, but it?s true.) Take hourly breaks to check your voicemail. But turn off the phone in the booth.
  • Don’t make rude comments about or make faces amongst yourselves at candidates after they pass your booth. (Believe me, there are a lot of unprofessional and immature people in the business these days.) Other candidates will see your immature attitude and may decide not to risk your judgment on them. You are in front of people in an exposed position. Remember – somebody else is seeing whatever you are doing and is judging your company by your actions.
  • Don’t leave the booth unattended. If you are alone, ask a representative of the event organizer to stand in for you while you take a comfort break. After all, we?re only human.
  • Don’t leave early if it is a slow night. It makes your company look unprofessional and you never know when the perfect candidate will arrive. (Five minutes after you left?)

Dress up your booth and yourself. Order balloons for your booth. Rent a popcorn machine. Get colorful handouts, and if possible, useful or interesting giveaway items imprinted with your company?s recruiting website address. If you are a business attire environment, dress accordingly. If you are business casual, or totally casual, wear company polo or tee shirts. Make sure you can be easily identified as a company representative. The image you project is the image people will run to…or run from. Project! Sell and market your opportunity outside your booth. On occasion, send one of your team members out armed with recruiting material. Have them wander up and down the aisles, out into the lobby area and in good weather even out into the parking lot. These orbits get the word out that you are there and eager to meet candidates. As the candidates wander the aisles of booths, they will feel obligated to come up to you. They will feel like the “ice” has already been broken. Sell! React quickly at the fair, and you will hire quickly. Be prepared to set up interviews on the spot. Candidates are impressed when you can do this and the word will spread. If you have a hiring manager in the booth, encourage him or her to leave the booth and find a private area to conduct a detailed screen. Have applications and other interview materials available for the candidate to take home. Empower the “hot” candidates to contact you directly within 48 hours if they have not heard from you. One client of mine kept an interview team back at the office on stand by and was sending qualified candidates straight to their office from the event for interviews that evening. Candidates went home with offers “in hand.” Speed in your process will prevent you from losing a good candidate due to backlog or lost resumes. Remember that this “hot” candidate will see five or ten companies that will want to hire him or her. Move! Save yourself a lot of phone calls. After the show, make one complete set of copies of all the resumes you collected. Give this set to one individual to make mailing labels or type email addresses into your email system. Send EVERYBODY an email or acknowledgement card telling him or her their status and what happens next in your process. They will have your name. They will call. Contact them first. At the fair, be honest, tell all candidates that processing this many resumes will require a week. If you have no interest, tell them. The personal contact at the fair makes people feel the right to call you. By “ducking” calls you are both unprofessional and cluttering up your process with resumes and efforts that have no hope of resulting in a hire. Communicate! Get accurate data on job fair performance. Do not judge the job fair by how many hires you make. You may have a slow process, have salary issues, or just not be an attractive employer. The real measure of success is how many candidates you saw that you wanted to interview. The other issues are ones you need to address –the fair organizers cannot be held responsible for your staffing, image, or organizational problems. If they arranged their event so good candidates came to the fair, they did their job. Find out why you are not doing yours. In addition, track the source of “walk-ins” over the four weeks following a fair. Many of these unknown source candidates are in fact candidates who went to the show, but did not have time to go to your booth. Or, who did not go to the show, but saw your advertising, or picked up a copy of the fair brochure. They may have borrowed recruiting material from a friend who did go to the fair. There are many other ways for your job fair message to have been spread. For example, the candidate who posted on your Web site, did she find the URL on a pen with your company logo she borrowed from a friend who went to the show? A lot of hires are credited to websites or other sources, when in actuality the message was FIRST delivered by another vehicle. For a period of four weeks after the fair, ask all unidentified source candidates, “How did you hear of us FIRST?” Give the job fair full credit to measure its full value. Evaluate! Think long-term and treat ALL candidates as valuable. Tired of seeing a lot of entry-level candidates at a job fair? Imagine if three years ago you started collecting those resumes and spoke with each candidate with interest, encouragement, and professionalism. You would have hundreds of 2 and 3-year candidates you could call who would remember that great company that took their resume, encouraged them, and stayed in touch. (Too much work? Go to the dictionary, look up “strategic” and get back to us.) This is a business that requires that you be both reactive and pro-active if you are going to survive. How big a fee do you need to make planning worthwhile? If you plan on staying in the industry longer than a year, do not be afraid to “plant seeds” (farming vs. hunting or fishing) Think tomorrow! There are countless excuses not to go to a job fair, but no good reasons. Job fairs give you an opportunity to make your unapproachable company approachable. If you are unknown, you can immerse your recruiting message in the candidate flow generated by known companies. If you are trying to express a new image or new corporate direction, a fair is a great place to start. You can observe other companies and see how they are getting their message out to the candidate pool. There is no “one way” to recruit. In this market, you cannot afford to be closed-minded about any recruiting source. Be willing to investigate your own effectiveness in using the tools available to you before you eliminate them from your portfolio. The market is not in your office, nor is it only to be found at “whatever.com”. You will never see the trends develop and change with your head down answering emails and voicemails all day and wishing for a few good candidates. You will not keep abreast of the candidate pool, technology, and talent competition staring at the four walls of your cubicle or office. Everything gets stale if kept indoors. Get a fresh perspective, take your recruiting message out for some fresh air. Take it to a job fair. Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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