March 27, 2012 at 12:32 PM

Are There Really Jobs at a Career Fair?

"Be realistic about what you might find at a career fair. It could be worth your while."

By Patty Armstrong

Where’s My Great Career?

Patty Armstrong is a career counselor and educator on a mission to help people of all ages find careers they enjoy.

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For a long time, I’ve argued that that job fairs have become an archaic institution that take lots of time, money and effort and offer few realistic job postings for participants. Large companies have their human resource pages and online application systems and smaller companies can use group marketing sites like Monster and Indeed – or even Craig’s list. Besides, it’s currently an employer’s market where the best employers figure the best candidates will seek them out and they don’t have to recruit. Occasionally a new business will have a mass hiring event that I call a hiring fair. For the most part, I believe job fairs should be a thing of the past.

But they’re not. And I keep putting on annual career fairs. So how do I reconcile my conflicting beliefs and behaviors? First of all, my employers expect me to do this because it looks good having employer representatives present to talk directly to students and community members in a public, well-attended event. Secondly, people of all ages still want job fairs. Younger and less confident or experienced job seekers don’t know where to start and a job fair helps get them going. And finally, you can still learn a lot and make great connections.

Some career fairs really have great job offerings. The annual Public Service Career Showcase held in the fall at the University of New Mexico has always been a dynamic fair with many federal recruiters you won’t ever meet elsewhere. I even met a CIA recruiter there once and got her business card. No address, but a phone number and e-mail. University career fairs are more likely to have national and big businesses employers because they’re seeking people with advanced degrees.

But not all vendors are there to hire. They’re there to recruit. A table could host an employment service provider, offering to help you find work. Or a school could be promoting education and training programs that could set you on the path to a satisfying and lucrative career. Others love their work and want to tell you what you need to do to be ready when an opening does occur with their business. Great networkers identify a potential employer and make connections so they’re ready when a position they want becomes available. A job fair can help you do that.

I prefer to call my fairs career fairs. A career fair encompasses employment services providers, schools, employers wanting to promote future careers and employers who are actually hiring. A career fair host never knows who actually has live job openings until the day of the fair – and often employers don’t either. Especially in today’s market, postings can be filled or pop up in a matter of days.

Should you spend your time attending career fairs, job fairs, hiring fairs or whatever they’re calling the event? I’d say it depends on your personal goals, self-marketing skills and whether you have time to roll the dice on what could be great or a dud. You might appreciate the chance to talk to human resources people to learn how they think and practice your networking. You might want to get some ideas on what kind of opportunities are out there.

I treat these fairs like a sale at a local clothing store. If you need a pair of black pants, and that’s all you want, you may be disappointed because everyone wants black pants and they’re hardly ever on sale. But there might be a pair that only fits a person like you, not most people. Or there could be a great pair of blue or grey pants you’d never considered buying, but now that you’ve seen them, you realize they look pretty good on you. Be realistic about what you might find at a career fair. It could be worth your while.

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