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The Truth About Job Fairs

In the January 24, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader blasts employers for job fairs and bogus recruiting. 

Question

I’m sure a lot of employers read this newsletter, so this is an open question to them about job fairs. Maybe they will respond. But I’d like your opinion, too.

job fairsTo Employers:

I go to job fairs to meet your company in person, but your representatives tell me to visit the company website in order to apply for a job. Call me crazy, but I thought the purpose of a job fair was to actually meet you — a real, live hiring manager.

By going to a job fair, I am separating myself from those who are sitting at their computers all day just sending out resumes. I am making an effort to drive (mind you, the cost of gas) to a job fair after getting all dolled up in a great suit and actually seeking to talk to someone to place my resume ahead of someone else’s. I’m trying to stand out and show you I’m serious about working for you.

And my reward for this effort? You slap me in the face and tell me to go home and apply on-line.

Why do you even bother “recruiting” at job fairs? Why is it that your representatives don’t know anything about jobs at your company? Why do they tell me, “We are not taking resumes?” I didn’t need to drive 20 miles to see you only to have you tell me to go home and apply online. What if I’m someone who does not have Internet access at home? What if I’m that person who is strapped for cash and had to decide between paying for groceries this month or keeping an Internet service provider and I chose to forego the Internet?

Come on! Give me a break. I go to job fairs so you can see a face behind my resume in hopes of landing that interview! I attend so I can meet real flesh-and-blood hiring managers. And you send “personnel representatives” who don’t even act like they work for your company! Maybe they don’t! Why are you wasting my time?

(Thanks for letting me vent, Nick.)

Nick’s Reply

Oh, you’re welcome. Venting is good, especially when you’re not the only one doing it. I get frequent mail on this topic. And I’ll tell you, you’ve nailed it. I don’t recall the last time anyone told me they went to a job fair and got a job.

The truth is, job fairs are largely a waste of time.

Companies go to job fairs because HR clearly has nothing better to spend its money on. They send greenhorn HR reps to collect resumes or to direct people to the website. You could do better standing on a street corner handing out your resume.

The other little secret some HR folks have sheepishly shared with me is that job fairs enable them to check off more boxes on federal employment regulation forms. Maybe this is how they identify race, color and disabilities and get credit for entertaining certain applicants. I welcome HR managers to explain their behavior.

You have dispelled one of the key myths about job fairs: that they are a good place to actually meet the hiring managers. Let’s dispel two more job-fair myths.

Job Fairs: Myth #1

You can cover a job fair with 300 employers in one day.

Or some huge number. The pitch is that more is better, so why not go? Even if you slice it down to 100 employers, a six-hour job fair will allow you 3.6 minutes for each employer. (Do you think that if you were to spend anywhere near six non-stop hours at a job fair you might get dizzy and pass out?) Trust your common sense: That’s not enough time for a meaningful exchange.

The alternative to job fairs: Get detailed job-fair information, including lists of employers, jobs and departments that are hiring. Invest that six hours identifying and contacting people who work at three good target companies that are “going” to the job fair. Tell these folks you can’t make it to the job fair, and ask for their insight and advice about their company.

Then ask for introductions to managers who seem to be hiring. Save gas and use it to attend interviews instead.

Job Fairs: Myth #2

Job fairs are a great place to find unadvertised jobs.

Any job openings advertised at job fairs are already old news. Job fairs are often a company’s last recruiting resort. While a personnel jockey is scanning your resume at the job fair booth, my candidate (or some other headhunter’s) is sitting in the hiring manager’s office demonstrating how she’s going to do the job profitably for the manager. That’s who you’re competing with.

But if you really think about it, why would an employer try to fill good jobs with the best candidates at a job fair — when so many of the best potential candidates have jobs and aren’t likely to attend a fair? That’s not to disparage unemployed job seekers; the best candidate for a job may be currently unemployed. But how does the job-fair strategy for hiring make sense for employers? Either HR is goofy, or HR isn’t being honest.

The alternative to job fairs: Truly unadvertised openings are in managers’ heads. Even HR doesn’t know about them yet. So skip the places where HR clerks hang out (job fairs). Instead, go where the hiring managers and their employees go: professional conferences, trade shows, and training courses. Get ahead of your competitors rather than stand behind them.

Sure, bring a resume, but first make some friends. Don’t ask for a job. Ask for the gold ring that smart headhunters reach for: insight about the person’s company and work. That’s what leads to real relationships, real personal contacts, and valuable personal referrals to hiring managers. And that’s where you will learn about unadvertised openings. (For more on this, see Meet the right people.)

Beware of the empty sales pitch

Like online job boards, job fairs are where many HR departments gleefully waste corporate recruiting budgets. Why? Because job boards and job-fair operators are very good at marketing their wares. You’ve seen the promotions: “Hire the best people! Use our service!”

It’s not a stretch to imagine this sales pitch by a job-fair operator to HR: “You can send your greenhorn clerks instead of expensive managers to the fair! Save money and still get applicants!” So HR saves money while appearing busy.

Need I say more? Thanks for sharing your story and ire. I hope your open letter draws responses from HR folks who spend money on job fairs.

Have you been to a job fair? What was your experience? If a job fair paid off for you, what’s the secret? If you work in HR, please give us the straight dope. I mean, the truth.

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54 Comments
  1. Nick,
    In my younger days I did attend some job fairs. Most truly were a waste of time.
    However, I have experienced job fairs that were successful. These are fairs that are specifically targeted at certain markets. Government jobs, educational and technical jobs would fall into this category. Another great place to find a job is not really a job fair but a job fair disguised as a competition. Universities often have events like computer science “Hack-a-thons”. Corporations sponsor these events. I have seen a sponsor give jobs to entire teams of students. I have a current job offer I am considering. I got it from an online federal government job fair.
    I guess the message I am trying to convey is always look for the hidden opportunity. It is there somewhere no matter what or where.

    • Tony: Thanks for the counterpoint. Most job fairs tend to be enormous cattle calls. Just as niche job boards are more effective than the big ones, highly focused job fairs can be worthwhile. But I think your best suggestion is to attend “not really a job fair” but events where people you’d like to work with hang out. Competitions are a great idea. What people don’t realize is, many good headhunters attend professional events to find candidates for their assignments, and, more important, to cultivate sources of good candidates for the future.

  2. Hi Nick, I became turned off to job fairs because it seemed like their were just a handful of employers and instead, mostly businesses trying to sell something to job seekers, such as training or resume services. Another very cruel way to exploit vulnerable job seekers. You clarified even more dirty tricks. Thank you for the insight! Diane

  3. I’m in HR and I agree with how you judged HR in this post, but I’d like to spin it a bit more. Job fairs are an outdated activity (think: fax machines). They are painted as still serving a purpose, probably because the hosts (colleges, mainly) make money off of them…still. Companies keep attending because of what I dub ‘tradition is the fear of change’ syndrome, nurtured by our aged business leaders who can’t fathom not doing thinks the way they’ve always done. It’s an ignorant comfort zone. “It’s how it’s always been done”.

    Business leaders boast about strategy and how they are champions of the future, but that only exists in technology and not in people management. I’m a Millennial and am required to be held back in a submissive role “until it’s my turn”, but the fact of the matter is *I’m next*. I’m the next leader. I’m the next executive. All these gripes and mundane activities are on my chopping block. Once my smooth-skinned face no longer prevents me from being taken seriously when I pipe up with ideas, I’m gonna do some damage by modernizing priorities.

    Job fairs have ALWAYS been a big waste of my time, both working them and attending them. The only benefit is when I snag a neat freebie from a booth. I hate spending company dimes on an outdated job fair activity. There is no value in the traditional met-and-greet of a job fair.

    (In my private opinion, a job fair is like ‘whack-a-mole’, where you’re trying to meet an intangible quota no one ever assigned, as if the business gods are secretly measuring you to see how many times you can answer the same coached question from someone who didn’t do their homework and kinda doesn’t care about the company, where both sides are just attending because we are all programmed robots)

    How I separate myself:
    I didn’t just join the local professional organization relative to my career, I signed up to volunteer in a capacity that serves to get me noticed (I serve on a committee that manages the annual awards…at the annual conference…attended by many peers…who hire…people like me).

    • *things

    • “It’s how it’s always been done”

      Astonishing, isn’t it, that the best HR has been able to do is job fairs and a silly updating of newspaper job ads, called “job boards” and “resume databases.”

      There is no recruiting in any of that. A cattle call is not recruiting. Nor is posting a job and waiting for who comes along.

      It’s why HR then turns around and pays a headhunter $30,000 to fill a job by actually recruiting. (Don’t confuse phony headhunters who run the same ads and use the same job boards to find people with real headhunters.)

      Thanks for posting from the new HR side!

  4. I did get a job through a job fair about six years ago, but it was a non-standard situation in a couple of ways.

    One, this was for a large company who needed to fill a position on a client contract *immediately*. They were losing money every day it was vacant. So they weren’t being as picky as usual.

    Two, I was clearly overqualified, but was in a situation where I was willing to compromise in exchange for certain benefits and professional certifications. Also, I knew that this company would have lots of other positions I could move to later, if so inclined. So I wasn’t being as picky as usual, either.

    Put that together: I got the job, benefits, and certifications I wanted; they got a senior employee at the price of a junior; and each side got the time they needed to look for a better fit. I left less than a year later for twice the salary at a job I found through word of mouth.

  5. I second Tony. I am extremely cynical in employment matters but some startup job fairs, for instance, are actually worthwhile: the startups (some of which don’t even have an HR dept yet) may send actual group leads there. These are often recurring events, so look online for testimonies about past editions. Big bonus if the organizer is one of the startups in question or at least local and not some conference and fair mill: the event may be less professionally organized as a result but it is more likely to have “real” people in it. These startup fairs are only in big tech cities, though.

    • Olivier: Good one! I never heard of “start-up job fairs.”

      One of the smartest “job fairs” was run by an old, highly respected Silicon Valley computer company, Tandem. (They made redundant computing systems.) Every Friday after work they had a beer bash at the company pool. (Yah, Tandem had a pool.) Employees were welcome to invite their friends from other companies.

      Cool way to recruit, eh? Guess you could call it a job fair of sorts. :-)

      • Here’s one in London: https://www.siliconmilkroundabout.com/. It’s locally run.

      • When print media was cool, I remember this free Silicon Valley publication named High Technology Careers. Their bright green boxes were seen on countless street corners. Every 2 months the publisher hosted a job fair named Westech. They did have actual hiring managers and you could talk shop with them and colleagues. The focus was indeed on the work.

        Nowadays job fairs have deteriorated into yet another form of clueless customer service. And the bins are now filled with free papers chock full of ads for “wellness centers.” Yes, we’ve moved from high tech to getting high.

  6. KEV M , I love your strategy. Smaaaart. I too worked at a great place but it was very heirarchal. While I am not millennial, nothing makes me more crazy than artificially being held back or limited. I too had to come up with a strategy:
    1. First I built relationships with people outside if my group in other units and departments
    2. Like you I made myself available to help, but also asked if my own team member could have access to any program I was helping on. This justified to my own team my putting effort there.
    3. When I had good idea that my team couldn’t use or wasn’t ready for, I gave it away to someone who could use it. Or, I found a partner also interested in ideas and we created it together. When people hear about it, they too may want in. Enter working cross functionally and being recognized outside of your own group by leaders in other areas of your organization.
    4. I got really firm on the fact that NOBODY could tell me who I could be friends with. There is no rule that you can’t be friendly and have lunch with high level executives. Sometimes they too like to lose their corporate agenda and just talk real. It’s fun— I learned what they were reading, who they saw at the opera, info on life at other comoanies, that they were frustrated too etc. In a culture where everyone is supposed to panick when so and so is in town…I didn’t have to absorb a drop of it.
    5. I got over asking for help fear/ego. I started reaching out to the best experts wherever they were located and taking on the hard projects that some a little afraid of. These people were happy to help. I learned the systems my boss was frustrated with or intimated by. My outside contacts helped solve the corporate mysteries and got me on the “list” to attend the most advanced trainings. The idea being to move forward but also be able to bail out someone any time they needed it.
    6. The beauty of being a millennial (or not in the top position) is you get to be the ” emergent leader” and unlike being the VP, the buck doesn’t stop with you. You are free to explore and defy gravity to your hearts content. I honestly think it is the better position.
    7. When the restructure eventually came, I got a heads up call weeks in advance letting me know “you are safe” . My own group that I loved buy sometimes artificially held me back…..was split and I was placed on one of the top HR Teams– something that changed my resume forever.

    • Uh… is there a recruiter lurking here? Free advice: Start recruiting right here, right now, on this thread… You’re not gonna find people like those commenting here in many other places…

  7. I think and validated that the HR people want a day out of the office and go offsite. I occasionally go to job fairs in upscale hotels, find the latrine near the event hall that both exhibitors and seekers are most likely to use. Find a stall, shut the door drop my trousers and sit on the throne for an hour just listen to the hubbub. I learn far more than possible by standing in line.

  8. Job fairs aren’t a hugely successful endeavor for my company (media/writing) but we have gotten good applicants from them. Nick’s experience doesn’t mirror my own at all. The last job fair we attended as a company, we sent 2 hiring managers to, both being exactly the people Nick would advocate you need to meet. I work in an admin capacity and attend when hiring managers or other producers can’t, but I’m very close to the hiring process and know well what the managers are looking for. Yes, we do ask that everyone who is interested in a job apply online; that’s because we don’t want to have to scan and email your resume to get it in the hands of our sometimes far-flung team of stakeholders, and we want to get the necessary info in the system (again, because approval to hire requires input from remote stakeholders) while we’re interviewing you, not while we’re in a rush to get an offer to you.

    The reasons we attend job fairs are simple: we want to get our brand in front of applicants that, otherwise, might have never heard of us, and thus never apply. We also want to give people a chance to ask questions about who we are and what we’re looking for. None of those things eliminates the need for us to see an actual application from you. But if you impress us in your time at our booth, we will remember you when we see your application and you note that you met us at XYZ job fair. If you’re not right for us but you’re still impressive, we’ll forward your application to one of the other brands at our company. You don’t get “rewarded” for going to a job fair because 1) hundreds of other people also attended this job fair, it’s not a hard thing to accomplish, and 2) jobs aren’t “rewards” you get because you jumped thru these hoops correctly. They are business arrangements people agree to because they are interested in what the other person has to offer. Your “reward” was the ability to talk, face to face, with someone at the company. That’s plenty of a lot of applicants to work with.

    • Kimberlee: If your company sends hiring managers to job fairs, then maybe they’re not job fairs :-). Seriously, I think that’s great. My gripe is that most fairs are cattle calls.

      Skip this part if it might compromise your firm or your recruiting efforts, but can you tell us what kinds of positions you try to fill at these fairs?

  9. Hi Nick:

    We’ve actually exchanged experiences and war stories over the past 15 years or so, and I’m pleased to see you take on this particular topic in today’s rather confused and convoluted employment environment…

    My first engineering job was actually the result of going to a job fair some 20 years ago, so as a number of respondents have stated, that was then, this is NOW….

    Even my 3rd job was the result of visiting a job fair, where the line to get into the “interviewing ballroom” was ~ 300 people long, but I was able to jump the line because of my having a current secret clearance… And, I then received an offer within 3 days of my interview….

    The sad part about this, is that my current graduate engineering students at my university where I’m an adjunct professor now, continue to go to these events, and get the same response you cited in your reply today —- “visit our website and submit your resume for any positions you are interested in…”

    Times have changed, and I fear not for the better…

    • Prof. Joel — I wish you had news like Kimberlee’s. Sorry to hear your students are having such a hard time.

    • I make personal contacts with hiring managers through networking… and get told to put my resume in through the system.

      There’s only ONE reason why I go to a job fair: the people I meet while standing in line.

      • Dear Nick:

        Thanks for your articles. I enjoy reading them.

        I went to my first (and last) job fair in Toronto in 2003 with a couple friends who were also looking for work at the time. We got there before the gate opened and there were already droves of people waiting to get in. The literal imaginary of a “cattle call” was not too far from the truth.

        We each paid 12 bucks (if memory serves) for entry. The event organizer boasted “over 100 stands” on the ad. Sure there were over 100 stands on site, but only 40 of them at most had warm bodies present. Of those you could roughly put them into two groups:

        (1) Those who refer themselves as employment agencies
        (2) Those who call themselves vocational institutions

        It pained me was to see hundreds of hopeful applicants queuing up for each of these employment agencies to have a chance of place their resume on top of the pile that could already fill a couple paper boxes. You know they were never going to be read, if not getting thrown out before the end of the day.

        There were two actual employers, though, if I recall. One was the Army, and the other was the city fire department. They looked justifiably like sideshows.

        Luckily all of us became gainfully employed shortly after said job fair. We could quickly put this one behind us.

  10. I have encountered two kinds of Job Fairs.
    The first one where companies are there taking resumes and telling people to apply online when they get home. In the last few years, many of these have been dominated by colleges and universities farming for new students, and agencies gathering resumes. The remaining were actually company representatives whose hearts weren’t into the process.
    The second job fair was conducted inside an actual companies offices, where they were really hiring and interviewing people to fill positions that day.
    Recently, here in Ottawa, something that appears to have come across the Atlantic from Europe is the Startup Career Fair. Last years event consisted of organized open houses at various startup firms in the region. Participants registered on Eventbrite to lock in their interest, and buses transported folks to the companies they wished to visit. They were greeted at the door, given a tour and then presented with the opportunity to make their pitch to the hiring managers. The various startup firms had previously posted their openings and interests for folks to be able to research them. I did not participate, but was told that it went very well.
    Shopify https://www.shopify.ca/, was a participating firm as was Blackberry and other high tech businesses.
    I have been told that the event was successful and will be held again in 2017.
    From what I believe I understand, the Startup event is not simply about hiring talent. It’s about establishing a successful entrepreneurial community that can grow the economy on a local and national scale.
    http://www.startupottawa.ca/

    • Richard: Check my story about Tandem Computers elsewhere on this thread. I think companies doing their own “fairs” is a great idea. We used to call them cocktail parties :-).

      • Ah, Tandem, I recall them well. Their systems were fault tolerant machines, any single point of failure in the system did not stop or interfere with it’s operation. Anything could fail and they would keep on processing. Disk, memory, CPU, I/O anything. Their code name for their product was Stratus. A great deal of their magic was done in software, the approach that Microsoft took with Windows NT. Applications had to be coded specifically to use the Fault Tolerant API.

        At Digital Equipment Corporation, our Fault Tolerant architecture was based on hardware, with a really small software shim. All current applications becameFault Tolerant simply by running on our systems, no special coding required.
        The code name for our systems was Cirrus, cause everyone knows, Cirrus clouds are higher than Stratus clouds.

  11. It’s so ironic that as I’m catching up on the ATH blog, a radio tease in the background says Philadelphia has become the first city to ban employers from asking candidates for salary history.

    Wow, what timing! 2 things that have outlived their usefulness, job fairs and salary history.

    • I saw the same news item. I’m going to be in Philly on Thursday doing a Sirius radio show for Wharton — this is a topic I’ll bring up. Career Talk with my buddy Dr. Dawn Graham: Tune in!
      https://businessradio.wharton.upenn.edu/programs/career-talk

      It’ll be interesting to see whether this new law changes anything!

      • I thought Massachusetts was the first state to ban asking for salary history. That would put Philly behind many Massachusetts cities. The next step would be for employers to publish their salary range in their job posting.

        • Yes, the law passed in MA this summer. Main components are:

          1. employers/recruiters can not ask for salary history.
          2. Employee can not be punished for sharing personally salary information
          3. The new law is equal pay for comparable work which is more stringent measure and puts MA more in line with Canada policy.
          4. Boston companies have been asked to voluntarily share their compensation data for the city to view in aggregate.
          Most comoanies should be doing their own pay audit to ensure they are truly compliant.
          5. To support this initiate, free salary negotiation workshops for women are being offered all over Boston. 2000+ have attended so far.

          The law goes into effect 1/ 2018. So of course I am STILL being asked for my past salary (Winter Wyman sucks). I tell them that I don’t share that info, I’d like to hear more about the role first. As an instructor of the workshops, I can’t recommend attendees withhold salary history and not withhold myself.

          *some I love about my Asian colleagues is that they don’t have the same Philosphy on talking about money we have in the US. They share salary information openly and they have vast networks. Beyond the law, this group is holding HR to a higher standard everywhere. I love them for it.

  12. Thank you. Thank you. I was recently on the way to an informational interview when I stopped at a job fair I had seen listed in the area. I had been encouraged by a speaker that talked about hidden networking opportunities. He agreed that the job fair is not a place to get a job, but better served to network with other attendees and find those random opportunities. Well, I walked in, and walked right out. There were huge lines to the largest employer, in an industry I have no passion for. (The website for the event was never fully updated with Employer information.) Everyone had resume’s in hand to give to representatives. I realized they were not even interviewing anyone. I looked around the room and there were more services directed at me paying out of pocket to improve resumes, head shots, and go to school or take classes online. After the event, I was bombarded with automated follow up emails “Did we miss you?” “Set up your appointment now.” Box checked, experience had, I doubt I’ll go back to something marketed as a job fair. I’ll pay more attention to appropriately sponsored networking events.

    • Kerri: You bring up a few good points.

      1. Job fairs tend to be cattle calls, with some exceptions, as others have noted.
      2. I failed to mention the “hangers on” at these events — resume writers, career coaches, and the lot. Those firms pay for their booths. The organizers love ’em. They do nothing for job seekers.
      3. The best thing to do at a job fair is meet people — if you can find ones worth meeting. Standing in line to deliver a resume when you can use e-mail is kinda silly!

      I hope you get back to that “speaker” about “hidden networking opportunities” and tell him he’s fulla crap. What is it with “hidden” — it’s become the big marketing word in the jobs biz! Nothing is hidden. But everything is hard to find if you’re sitting all day in front of a display watching digital thingies float by…

  13. I once traveled several hundred miles to attend a job fair in a city where I wanted to relocate. About a year later, after my move, I was doing temporary work in the HR department of a company which is a major company in town and was given the job of cleaning out a cubicle for someone who would soon be starting there. I found where they kept all of their job fair booth items which had obviously been thrown in this vacant cubicle after their last job fair. Along with the usual things you’d expect to find (banners, signs, bowls of peppermints) I found a stack of resumes that was at least 1- 1 1/2 feet high when stacked all together. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for all those duped people who turned in their resumes at this company’s booth thinking that would get them inside–mine was probably in there too!

    • Karen: Sheesh. You get the prize for the hidden gem. Wow — stale, un-read resumes from years ago!!

  14. A small job fair with hardly a dozen companies, run by a bunch of churches, in a medium-size church room. Didn’t get any results, but at least I didn’t feel like a piece of meat. That was circa 2010. The year before that I attended a networking event with recruiters present, where I experienced what others have reported: “Oh! You should visit our website!”

    And this was from an institution where I had worked six years, and had worked my way up to an assistant manager. The recruiter wasn’t interested in the thirty years of development I experienced after moving on to more advanced opportunities.

    So much for starting a conversation.

    The state-run job fair I attended shortly after my job loss circa 2008 was one of the reasons I quickly fell into clinical depression. Parking was overflowing, and the line of job seekers literally was winding around the building. And I was there early. There must have been thousands of people pouring by a dozen companies, half of which were construction companies. Going home to my hopeful wife with nothing hopeful to report did not make this a fun day.

  15. Fifteen years ago I went to my very first — and last — job fair. I think I saw about 10 reps from companies I was interested in. I got two calls back. One guy was trying to sell me investment services (at the time I was unemployed — just keeping the lights on and food on the table was a challenge); the other guy was a rep from one of the companies I wanted to work at — he was trying to date me. Never, ever again. Job fairs are the biggest employment scam out there.

  16. I could write an article on this. I’ll try to be brief with a view different from what I’ve read so far.
    I agree to the points taken in the context given, which appears to be what I’d call the pay-to-play cookie cutter job fairs hosted by companies who do this for a living

    But I don’t agree in the broadest sense because of other options available

    I’ve Been on both sides of the table over about 50 years of job hunting & recruiting. As a hiring manager, and as a recruiter I have hired or enabled hiring of, a lot of good people from job fairs, right up to a year & a half ago. I confess, from the Corporate side, I find they a great resource & have always used them. To be fair, as a job hunter, just as useless as people have been so noting.

    What makes it successful from either side of the table is to apply good job hunting processes, with a twist on how to work a job fair, Which is to break it into 3 segments, before, during, after

    Before.
    1. Do your homework. research who is run the job fair? That is, one of the pay-to-play businesses that hold job fairs, a hiring company? government? volunteer group? non-profit? This makes a big difference on deciding if you should attend.

    2. As Nick noted, find out what Corporations are going to be there? Focus on companies you want to target, & as suggested network to see if you can find out if hiring managers will be there. If not Most likely you will waste your time. Generally in my experience the larger the corporation the closer you get to cattle call. So give some thought to researching the smaller, the lesser known and most likely you won’t be one among many.

    During. This is where that elevator speech may actually be useful. Dress for success and be able to be clear about why you like that company & why they should be interested in you. Also view it as a networking opportunity, work the crowd to pick up ideas and leads. collect business cards, trade resumes.

    After. The best value of a job fair is afterward. And I mean this from both sides of the table. This is where the work really starts. FOLLOW UP.

    Look, I did the job fair thing as a job hunter and had all the negative experiences noted. But..I turned myself into a recruiter eventually landing as an in-house recruiter myself, working part time for a small privately owned company. As such, I started using job fairs to find people run by volunteer job hunting groups and churches, community colleges. Why? #1. They were FREE to the company. #2.They were FREE to the company. #3. As a job hunter I was aware of them, and knew they’d be a good source.

    But armed with negative experiences as a job hunter, I was able to develop a process respectful to candidates and pragmatic for the company to best make use of job fairs. Job Fairs became our very best & effective source for most of our hiring. NOTE: yes we hired people we met at the job fairs. Particularly a couple of very well run favorite ones held once or twice a year.

    As we got traction with this, we enlisted the hiring managers to attend…in force. to where every department was attending. Once that was nailed down, if a job fair was pending, I’d direct people to the job fair & our booth so they would definitely meet a hiring manager I wanted them to meet. This was so much faster than serially working people through the normal work day of a manager.

    The volunteers who ran the fairs soon learned we turned out in force as a company and they passed the word and directed people of interest to us real time. We got momentum & for a small company we got great turnout. We the booth well staffed I literally worked the floor, engaging candidates at the door, in the hall, walking around and with confidence could send them directly to a hiring manager. The managers loved it and we never had a problem getting them to show up.

    As I noted, the real work began AFTER the job fair. We collected a resume from every person we talked to. Yes we also asked them to apply on line. Why? To see if they’d follow up, to see if they really had an interest in the company. IN THE COMPANY, not just tire kicking for a job. I believe Follow up is a critical attribute in any kind of job. People who followed up moved to the head of the line for time and attention, often outweighing raw skillsets. We read every resume and we, mostly me, would personally get back to everyone whether they were a fit or not. With a stack over 100+ this could take awhile. So it was done on a priority basis. 1. Immediately to those who followed up with that application, note or call. 2. To those who responded to our follow up to them..3 eventually everyone else. It was relatively easy to quickly determine managerial interest & get people in for interviews.

    All the discussion thus far has been from the attendee side. But…the door swings 2 ways. The companies do expend effort, even if only a warm body to attend a Fair. And on their side of the table get a lot of promises, seeming interest, etc. But I’ve collected info from years of working job fairs as a recruiter…And at best about 30% of people actually follow up, about another 15% from people I reached out to..the rest go into the wind and in many cases unreachable. Which is OK as they are telling us they are not interested. But..I know many are the same people complaining no one gets back to them. So take note, from the standpoint of a company, many people are time wasters too, not just the companies.

    Finally when the dust settles, I give the people that put together the job fairs feedback. How many people we talked to, interviewed, hired. Because as I said we exclusively used either volunteer groups, non profits or community college or universities which offered free fairs. The people that put time into putting together a Fair, particularly unpaid volunteers really want to help…and no one tells them what happened..They love the feedback…and as I noted..become advocates for those that do (which was us because no one else was doing it)

  17. I disagree with the substance and tone of your column. High quality niche career fairs can be an effective tool for both employers and candidates in their search for each other. My company, RecruitMilitary, will produce 127 city and base career fairs for veterans this year. On average our veteran attendees report an 80% positive return on the investment “ROI”) of their time and our employers report a 93% positive ROI on their investment and time. Over 10,000 individuals gained interviews because of our fairs during 2016.

    As I have written on my LinkedIn blog, there are many myths about veteran career fairs. Job seekers and employers need to conduct careful due diligence on what works for them and not make blanket dismissals of any one tool or resource. Quality matters but so too does the diligence and effort of job seeker and employer alike.

    I have observed that veteran job seekers need help with two primary areas of their job searches and high-quality niche career fairs are excellent at providing both. First, they need to grow “opportunity awareness.” That is, they need to understand what sort of jobs exist and where they might fit. Likewise, job seekers need to develop “social capital.” That is, they need to learn how to network effectively. A good job fair offers both opportunities as one key part of a well-conceived and executed job search strategy.

    Job seekers face enough challenges without encountering cynical opinions that dissuade them from a tactic that continues to benefit thousands of job seekers.

    • Peter: Thanks for posting your comments. Understandable since you work for a job fair company. I don’t know RecruitMilitary or its reputation other than what you’ve written. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

      As you might have seen in the comments thread, some readers have posted positive experiences with job fairs. That’s what this forum is for. However, the preponderance of comments reveals really lousy experiences with job fairs — including some folks who work in HR. So I don’t think my column is cynical — it’s critical based on my own experience and knowledge, and that of most people I’ve talked with about it.

      My tone is negative because of the record of job fairs overall. Job seekers face challenges not because of cynical opinions, as you suggest, but because useless and often counterproductive services are marketed hard to them — wasting their time and money. The purpose of this website is to educate, to provide a forum for candid discussion, and to provide a place for honest debate. You seem to characterize all job fairs as valuable and useful without criticism.

      I don’t buy it. When people conduct due diligence by attending fairs and evaluating critically, as they report here, their views become cynical after they’ve gotten screwed by job fair vendors. Yours may be a shining counterexample of a job fair company, but that doesn’t mean job fairs are an effective tool on the whole.

      I use Ask The Headhunter to offer education, but I just get the ball rolling. Most of what members of this community learn comes from the participants themselves, who share their stories, insights, advice and experiences. I suggest you read what they’re saying about job fairs.

    • “My company, RecruitMilitary, will produce 127 city and base career fairs for veterans this year. On average our veteran attendees report an 80% positive return on the investment “ROI”) of their time…”

      The operative word here is veterans. You just excluded the nonVets, and your focus group is a tiny niche. I am not saying it is a bad thing, but it certainly isn’t reflective of everyone.

  18. Job Fairs are a waste, just scammy business to rack up EEO points. Funny story. So I apply online for a gig I thought I was perfect for with a certain company. Two weeks later I get a canned regrets letter. Dumbfounded that I did not even get an interview I write back that I intend to attend a Job Fair the next week they have been listed as being at and that I’ll make a point of stopping by to explain why they should have at least brought me in for an interview. Get a letter back apologizing, they really did find their dream candidate, so they won’t bother being at the Job Fair since that was the only position needing to be filled, but that they would be at the resume workshop being held a few days ahead of the event for a small extra fee. I originally had no intention of going to the workshop, I’m no newbie, plus it fell on a religious holiday I tend to observe, but I broke tradition and went, sat in the front row, engaged the presenter like a star student and afterwards revealed myself as the rejected candidate. Got an invitation to apply for another, UN-advertised gig, nailed it. Sometimes, Woody Allen’s strategy of 90% of success is simply showing up, does apply.

  19. I’ve not been a job fair advocate for a while, although my son’s college, Michigan Tech University, has helped me see a different side. The university goes to great lengths to prepare their students for their job fairs, as well as having high expectations for the employers who attend. As a result, students meet people with hiring authority and frequently get internships, coops, and jobs as a direct result of the job fairs. Similar to the gentleman who commented about RecruitMilitary, students also gain networking skills, something my son desperately needs. (He’s a typical introverted engineer!)

    As someone involved in hiring, I agree with the request for someone to apply online after the job fair if they are really interested in a job. Just because we had a nice conversation doesn’t mean the candidate wants to work for that employer. I’m surprised that job fair providers don’t have tablets or some other onsite Internet access to apply for openings. That would ease the accessibility issue for many job fair attendees.

    Based on the comments here, I get the feeling that some people expect an offer onsite at the job fair… that seems entirely unrealistic unless you happen to be at one of those cattle-call fairs where they need someone, anyone, tomorrow.

    My takeaway from this thread: not all job fairs are alike. Don’t write them off completely, just do your homework and be strategic about when and where you attend.

    • Annette,

      I’m glad your son’s college does a good job organizing its job fairs. Schools have a big obligation to help grads get jobs after parents pay $200,000 and more for a 4-year education.

      But your comments about the purpose of job fairs don’t make sense to me.

      “I agree with the request for someone to apply online after the job fair if they are really interested in a job.”

      What’s the purpose of a job fair, where applicants can meet employers to be evaluated in person, if not to complete a job application right there? If you’re going to argue it’s just a meet-and-greet/get-to-know-the-company, then don’t call it a job fair. A job fair is a place to match eager job seekers to jobs, or it’s a waste of time, or worse, a sham.

      “Based on the comments here, I get the feeling that some people expect an offer onsite at the job fair… that seems entirely unrealistic unless you happen to be at one of those cattle-call fairs where they need someone, anyone, tomorrow.”

      I don’t think anyone expects an offer at a job fair, but I think everyone expects a job interview and a clear indication about whether they are considered a good possible hire. If employers aren’t at a job fair to interview and assess applicants, I can guarantee you that’s what the applicants are there for.

      Employers who show up ready to interview and to do the serious work of assessing, recruiting and hiring people are to be complimented. The rest are shameful examples of carny barkers who should not be there.

      The idea that you should show up to be told to go apply online is absurd. Anyone can apply online at any time. So how does the applicant’s presence at the fair accomplish anything? If an employer is serious about someone they meet at a fair and takes no action, something is woefully wrong.

  20. The last job fair that was worthwhile for me to attend was a single-company job fair. They were opening up a branch, had numerous positions, and like most of us in here, had given up onthe job boards, local newspaper and just about any “traditional” hiring method. It was on a weekend, and instead of HR hacks, they had line managers there who would actually talk about the positions. Since what they did was somewhat unique, they were looking for quick studies for most positions, someone they could mentor and train.

    Most of the ones since have been merely to get all the vets, all the over 45’s, all the (fill in the blank) together for a chat fest. Oh yeah, and sell resume and dress for success services.

  21. I’ve had mixed results with job fairs, but the last successful one I attended was in 2001. That was the last one in which employers were willing to talk to people, look at résumés, etc. The most recent one I went to was a disaster. Despite touting “over 200 employers”, it was less a job fair and more of a sales fair. The companies there were doing hard sales pitches for their products, and the only ones willing to talk to job hunters were the so-called professional résumé writing services (for which there was a fee). I asked the people representing the companies if they were the hiring managers for their departments, and not a single one (I spoke with over 30 people) held that position. Most were HR folks, and when I asked them to tell me about the job vacancies at their businesses, no one could tell me anything: “I don’t know if there are any vacancies, but apply online and if we’re interested, we’ll call you” was the response. It was a colossal waste of time.

  22. I recently attended a large Diversity Job Fair, advertised on LinkedIn. Instructions to job seekers registering for the event read:

    “Prepare! Prepare! Prepare! Be sure to visit each company’s website to see what job opportunities you qualify for. Come and impress recruiters with your preparedness (they really like that!)”

    I’m embarrassed to say I was the proverbial fly attracted to meat because days before I came across this job fair posting, I had applied to several positions, with two very large, locally-based employers, who were going to be there. So, I signed-up anticipating – based on the instructions – that this would be my opportunity to connect directly with the recruiters at these premier companies.

    The morning of the fair I got up early to carefully prepare and practice my pitch, and to dress for success; only to find instead of being drawn to meat, I had instead been drawn to a steamy pile of crap jobs.

    This seems so silly now, but I eagerly walked up to the first company’s table, with my job posting, cover letter and resume in hand, only to be swatted down with the news that they were strictly looking to hire mortgage phone sales reps…ugh!

    I marched on to the next employer’s table hoping to having better luck. When I arrived, I was greeted by one of the cronies hired to vet candidates. I was handed a list of positions they were looking to fill. I studied the list, which included mostly low paying, high-stress, call center and collections jobs. I said “thank you, but I was hoping to speak with someone about a couple of positions, I have applied for through through your company career site.” I briefly explained my background and I was put in line to speak with the HR Manager. When it was my turn, I gave my pitch and asked if it would be possible for her to help me get my cover letters and resumes to the hiring manager’s.

    Sadly, I swatted down even harder this time, when the HR Manager said in a snippy tone “that’s not what we’re here for,” and then dismissed me by turning her back. (BTW, this women happened to be black and my only notable “diversity” is my age, but most people think I look a lot younger than I am).

    After making a quick mental note of the situation, the first thought that crossed my mind was, is she put out by me being a straight, white person at a diversity career fair, on top of not being interested in any of their immediate need jobs?

    I naturally left feeling betrayed and frustrated about the complete waste of time and energy. I think it’s despicable the purpose of this event was so mis-represented and that it was also set-up as a ploy to expose vulnerable job seekers to non-advertised vendors looking to prey on them, rather to than to hire them…argh!

  23. I have been to veteran job fairs. And the summary is that I am still with my current employer.

    As far as diversity fairs, I don’t bother. I might be a good candidate, I might be the best candidate. I’ll never be the “meets the quota” candidate.

    I’d rather spend my time hanging out at the bar where (for instance) the sheep shearers hang out and REALLY network with my fellow sheep shearers.

  24. Job fairs, ATS portals… it seems as though, no matter how good you are, they’re looking for “somebody else” – and at slave wages too.

    In general, on the job search, to be hired a candidate has to:

    1. Get past the ATS (no small feat)
    2. Get past the social media vetting (where ANYTHING could be used against you)
    3. Get past the hokey “If you were an animal, what would you be” questions
    4. Get past ageism (I’ll guess most people on this list fall into that category)
    5. Get past the pennies-on-the-dollar salary
    6. Have to be dog-panting enthusiastic about working there

    Make it past all of these things, congrats, you’re hired.

    And then they wonder why they can’t hire anyone and why there’s a “shortage”.

  25. Thank you all for your comments. I was scheduled to attend a job fair over 100 miles from where I live. Total cost would’ve been roughly $120 and my valuable time. The fair is at a University, and those few employers slated to be in attendance (about 5) are very big companies that need no introduction. Each could cease advertising/marketing and prime candidates would still be clawing at each other to be considered. Something in my gut told me to cancel and spend my time instead looking for professional associations to join and filling my list of pros around town to try getting informational interviews with.

    I’m confident I made the right choice. Thank you all.

  26. I was supposed to attend a Job Fair tomorrow in Los Angeles, but after being to 2 job fairs, one being the Veteran Job Fair and Second another one hosted by Everbright (If remember correctly) both in Los Angeles, I was really thinking if I should attend another job fair provided by Everbright. In my opinion, the Veteran Job Fair was the best. One can gain information about veteran benefits, such as (Work for Warriors) a government agency that helps veterans find work, very useful and from my interaction with them can be very useful for someone who is mainly entry-level. On the other hand, much like other job seekers that posted, I got some of the same, “Look at our website for more information”. I found a lot of government agencies and the other companies there mainly concentrated on entry-level jobs or sales. Now, on the Everbright job fair where mainly in sales, with few companies present or government jobs. However, there were on the spot interviews, which the veteran fair claimed to have, but didn’t (At least the one I went to). All I can say is good luck in your job search and hope that what ever job fair you attend is a quality one versus one that is about sales.

    • AC: Thanks for the rundown on the veterans’ job fair and your good advice for others!

  27. I saw this thread this morning as I was trying to decide if I should to go a job fair in my area. I have been in the work force for a long time but had never attended a job fair before. At first reading these messages I thought it would be a waste of time. I decided to go anyway so I could check it out and at least have as point of reference.

    I decided to attend late to avoid the rush hour traffic and the initial line at the door. Today’s event was a 5 hour fair with 17 or so companies. There was only one company that I knew about before the event that i was interested in. I talked to about a third of the companies there. The others I knew would not be a fit for me. I mostly didn’t have to wait in any lines.

    I think for me it was worthwhile because first I didn’t invest a lot of time, I took my time getting there, stayed only 45min and left. My expectations were low. I was able to learn about companies I didn’t know about before. Talking to people at the show helped me determine if those were companies I might want to work for. My expectations were not to find a job there but to find companies that I may want to work for. I found two to look into and a few others that I learned I can avoid in my job search.

    • I like how you used the job fair: Not to apply for jobs. (HR at these fairs tells you to go online to apply, anyway!) You used it to learn about companies firsthand. Smart. I wonder how many companies at job fairs actually provide useful information about themselves that you can’t find online, though?

      Regardless, I’m a big proponent if meeting people face to face, assuming the people who are there are worth meeting! Glad it paid off for you the way you used it! Thanks for posting.

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