Monday, April 16, 2007

Candidates – How to Get the Most Out of a Career Fair

As a professional recruiter, I have worked many Career Fairs. In the 1990’s it was one of the ways many companies recruited candidates. The Internet Job Boards were not as entrenched as they are today and companies felt there was value by being there. I used to coach my clients that if they managed to recruit one person who met them at a Career Fair, it was a wildly successful day.

However as a candidate, why would you want to attend a Career Fair? First of all, are you committed to making a change in employers or are you simply snooping around to see what positions are available out there? Or is your attendance practice for future searches? The reason does not matter. The preparation needs to be the same.

The primary purpose of attending a Career Fair is to personally network with potential employers. It is the way to attach a personality to your resume and possibly get an interview on the spot.

In the recruitment business, timing is everything. You are hoping that the employer is looking for you at the same time that you are looking for them.

Okay, you have decided to attend the Career Fair, what do you do first? Find out what employers will have booths. Then go to their websites and click on “Careers” or “Employment Opportunities” to see what kinds of jobs are posted on their website. If a job is posted, it may be open (or recently filled). On the other hand, while most open jobs are posted, most budgeted jobs but not yet open, are not posted. Many times managers tell me “if you find someone with thus and such background, bring them to my attention. For the right person, I will open a position.” Therefore don’t assume that a company isn’t interested in talking with you. They may not be advertising that they are looking for you yet.

Once you decide on a position that interests you, start looking for the companies that would need that type of employee. Remember to look at the press releases on the corporate websites. You may see that a company has won a substantial new contract that will require new people with your skills.

If you know the employer has employees with your skills (most companies need accountants, HR, sales, etc.), just no current posted positions, understand that the recruiter may be aware of a resignation that has not been translated into an open requisition yet. Therefore, it is still a good idea to approach that company at the Career Fair.

Now it is time to prepare your “Here I Am” speech. It is also known as an “elevator speech” or “one minute commercial.” Here are the components of your “speech”:
1) A quick summary of your background. Be sure to mention any significant accomplishments and what you are passionate about doing at work.
2) What you are doing today, including if you were part of a lay-off.
3) What you would like to do next.

It is important to practice this little speech so it will flow nicely at the booths.

Now look at your resume. Start sentences with action verbs in the past tense. Talk about your experience in the third person, as if you were narrating your story but about someone else (“He”). Drop the pronouns. For instance “Developed a new process that …” Be sure to include all of your important accomplishments. If you are satisfied with your resume, make 10 more copies than you thought you would need. You never know who you may run into and want to hand a resume to them.

Just prior to the Career Fair, familiarize yourself with the hall layout and the booths where your targeted companies are. Remember, the recruiters at the booths are also human. They will be fresh at the beginning and tired at the end. Probably best to catch them at their freshest, correct? Therefore be sure to arrive early. If you need to come later, understand that some recruiters will fold up their booths and leave if the candidate traffic has been light. Not always a good idea for them, but some times they are thinking about the productive things they could be doing.

Be sure to wear at least business casual clothes. Your clothes are a sign of the level of respect that you have for those recruiters. If you are dressed in your jeans or a sweat suit, what message are you giving to the recruiter about your level of commitment to make a job change? It’s probably not the right message. In the late 1990’s, I was at a Career Fair when a guy came dressed as a clown. Unfortunately he did think that he could get an interview dressed like that. What he got was a total lack of respect and recruiters only wanted to see his resume so they would not waste their time with him later. He made a lot of black lists that day.

Plan your Career Fair attendance as you would a day at Disney World. Know what employers you definitely want to see, who would be nice to see, and who would be good if there is enough time. You goal is to make as many new friends as you can in a relatively short period of time. Generally when crowds enter a Career Fair hall, they hit the booths near the door first and work their way back. Therefore, it is best to go to the companies that you are targeting who are in the back of the hall. Then work your way forward. Watch the ebb and flow of the crowd. Generally, recruiters are very, very busy and then there is a drop off and then busy again. Try to hit them in their drop off periods.

When you do finally get in front of the manager or recruiter, introduce yourself and shake their hand. Be sure your grip is firm, but breaking fingers leaves a poor impression. On the other hand I hate weak, cold fish handshakes. They indicate someone who lacks confidence. Hand your resume to them and begin to give them your “Here I Am” speech. Ask them if they have any questions? Respond if they do. Be succinct. Remember to keep good eye contact but this is not a staring contest.

If there is a line behind you, the recruiter will lose interest in you within about 10 minutes. Be a good listener. If the recruiter tells you that they don’t need your expertise, accept it. If you want to argue with them, their eyes will glaze over and they will go to their mental “Happy Spot” until you stop talking.

Once in awhile, they will bring a manager along to help with the quick screens at the Career Fair. You may get a quick interview on the spot. Therefore be mentally prepared for an interview. That is one of the reasons you need to learn about the company before the Career Fair.

When I am recruiting at a Career Fair, I look for sharp candidates. When I find them, if there is a hiring manager with me, I strongly suggest to the manager that they interview the candidate on the spot. There are many reasons for this, not the least is that I am selfish with good candidates. If I can keep my competing companies from seeing the person, it may make it easier for us to hire them (I bet you didn’t have a clue that type of thing happens, did you?). My clients have hired many people as a result of that strategy.

Be sure to try to get a business card if you can. Many companies will not give out a business card other than a general corporate card with their website on it. Some companies will tell you to forward your resume to their website. That’s okay. That is how they track candidates through their recruitment process. If you cannot get the Manager’s business card, write down his or her name and title.

If you feel that you really connected with a company, stop back before you leave, and let them know that you are very interested.

After the Career Fair, send handwritten thank you notes to everyone that you had significant conversations with. You will really differentiate yourself by doing so.

When you feel that as a result of your efforts at the Career Fair you may get an opportunity to interview, review your research. As a result of that research, prepare to answer questions that reflect the challenges they are or may be experiencing.

The interview is another column. Good luck at your Career Fair!