Job Fairs – A Top Tool in Your Job Search

Job fairs give you that rare opportunity to meet potential employers (and sometimes even hiring managers) face to face. But you must learn how to work them for your best shot at a subsequent interview.

Job fairs, especially the big ones, can be overwhelming. The secret is to prepare yourself in advance and know how to work the fair when you get there.

Above all, don’t be intimidated by the sight of all those potential employers in one place. Remember: they are only there because they have jobs to fill that they haven’t been able to fill using other methods. Otherwise, they wouldn’t go to the time and expense of a display booth. Even a small, local job fair can cost an employer three or four thousands dollars to buy a display booth. Major job fairs are much more.

Case in point: As a hiring manager, I was recently asked by HR to work a shift at a local job fair. I had a couple of technical job openings that HR wasn’t yet able to fill and they wanted to advertise them at the job fair. Plus, three other managers had several openings that still were unfilled after advertising them elsewhere, so they took turns staffing the booth also.

Now, just imagine this: we went to the expense of buying a booth at the job fair only because we had job openings and were desperate for qualified candidates. This is a job hunter’s dream – employers begging for qualified candidates! So don’t be shy or intimidated. The companies wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have jobs to fill.

What to Prepare in Advance

It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to visit every employer at the fair, so it’s important to choose them in advance and be prepared to make the most out of the visit to each booth.
Here’s what you should do in advance of every job fair:

  • Research the companies that are attending the job fair.
    Almost all job fairs have a web site on which they’ll list the companies that will be in attendance. It may also include some information about each employer, such as the types of openings they have. If not, go to the web site for each employer to research job openings and information about the company.
  • Narrow the employers down to a manageable number.
    You can’t do a thorough job of researching more than about three to five employers. Decide on the ones you are most interested in and do enough research to get a good sense of what they do, how big they are, what their primary goals are, etc. Be sure to know what jobs openings are shown on their web site, as they may not be specifically displayed at the job fair. You may want to then choose another three or four employers for your ‘B’ list. For these, you can do a more cursory job of research, but you should still be sure to know what job openings are posted on their web site.
  • Print plenty of resumes to take.
    You should take at least 20 copies of your resume with you. Even if you only visit a small number of employer booths, you may have more than one person ask for your resume. You’ll also need a few copies to give to other job seekers that you may meet and network with. If there are a couple of employers you are particularly interested in, and you’ve researched them in advance and know they have openings you are qualified for, you may want to specifically tailor a version of your resume just for them. This action alone will put you way above most other job seekers at the fair.
  • Prepare a 30-45 Second “Infomercial” about Yourself.
    At the job fairs I’ve worked as a hiring manager, I always find it awkward when someone stops by the booth and simply mumbles something about how they’d like a job at my company and hand me a resume. What really impresses me are those job seekers who can tell me who they are, what their major qualifications and experience are, and a few comments about how that fits in with the openings at my company. And they do it in 45 seconds or less. These are the resumes I flag for potential interviews. Practice in advance of the fair until you can do this smoothly and in an articulate manner.
  • Research the dress code.
    Many times, the job fair web site will suggest a dress code. They may specifically say “business casual” or some may say “dress or interview attire”. If it doesn’t say, then dress business casual if you’re seeking a non-management position, or the more formal “interview attire” if you’re seeking a management position. By the way, business casual means nice slacks and a collared shirt for men, a skirt and blouse or nice slacks for a woman. Under no circumstances should you wear any kind of jeans or tee shirts (not even for programmer positions!).

What to Do at the Fair

Once you’re at the fair, here’s how to make the best impression and the best use of your limited time.

  • Carry a portfolio
    Carry a simple portfolio for your resumes and into which to put brochures, business cards and other information you gather at the fair. This keeps your resumes looking neat and gives a more professional overall impression.
  • Questions you should never ask
    Two questions you should never ask are: (1)”Can you tell me about your company?”, and (2)”What job openings do you have?” These questions show that you’ve done no research about my company and you are just there to throw resumes at employers in the hope that some will be caught. You should research in advance the companies you’re most interested in. You should also know what job openings they have, so that you don’t waste your time or the employer’s time.
  • What to say
    I know this sounds contradictory, but when meeting an employer you should not talk either too much or too little. I’ve had many candidates that ramble on about what they like and don’t like, what their hobbies are and what they had for breakfast that morning. After 10 or 15 minutes it becomes clear that they have no idea as to if they are right for my company. At the other extreme are those job seekers that hand me a resume and expect me to read it and tell them if they are qualified. These types of job seekers rarely make it to my resume ‘A’ list. As a hiring manager, I like you to: make eye contact, have a firm handshake, and be able to tell me in a few sentences how you are qualified for the job openings I have. You should be able to clearly tell me how your skills and experience are a good match for me. Those who can do this in a confident and articulate manner are the ones who get called for interviews.
  • Be sure to get a company brochure and a business card.
    Always get as much information about the company as you can. This shows you’re interested. And always get someone’s business card. It’s best to get a hiring manager’s business card if they are present, but any company employee business card will at least give you contact information for any needed follow-up. At a minimum, you should ask for the hiring manager’s name so you can apply to that person by name in the future.
  • Ask how to follow-up.
    Don’t leave the booth without asking if it’s okay to follow-up with the person whose business card you obtained (you did get one, didn’t you?). If so, ask if they prefer a follow-up by phone or by email. And then be sure to follow-up if – and only if – there is a match between the jobs they have open and your skill set. If there isn’t a good match, you’re wasting both your time and the employers time by following-up simply for the sake of following-up.

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