Career Fairs from the HR Perspective

By: Laura M. Labovich


Have you ever wondered why companies participate in career fairs? What value is in it for them? What happens to all of the candidates they meet and resumes they capture? Is it even worth a job seeker's time and effort to attend a career fair?

The short answer is yes, but not all companies have the same goals when they sign up for a career fair. It is important to point out the two most common agendas companies consider before committing to participate in a career fair.

Agenda #1: Exposure, Awareness and Visibility!

In my 12 years in Human Resources for two Fortune 100 companies, I have attended more career fairs than I care to count. A few fell into this category. These job fairs were the ones that often gave us pause to consider why we were at that job fair at all! Perhaps we didn't have any jobs to offer. Or, we were in the middle of a layoff. Or, we were targeting a market that just didn't appear to make sense.

We participated in many of these puzzling job fairs in an effort to gain public awareness, visibility and exposure. First we would ask some of the following questions: Do we want to be viewed as an employer who hires a diverse population of candidates? Do we want to be seen as an expert in the technical field? Do we have any part time or entry-level jobs to offer? Depending on our company and departmental vision, we targeted the unique job fairs that met those criteria, such as diversity, technical and summer internship job fairs. Occasionally, we participated in the same technical job fairs year after year out of a desire to be viewed as a technology employer, even if we were not hiring at the time.Often, these companies refer candidates to their corporate website to apply for a job. They do not conduct onsite interviews and typically do not schedule in person interviews as follow up to the event. Since the main goal of these companies is to gain exposure, not necessarily make hires, an active job seeker may be better off pursuing the other employers at the career fair.

Agenda #2: Making Hires!

More often than not, I attended job fairs with a very specific goal in mind: making hires! We would carve out the specific jobs before we headed to the career fair. Throughout the event, we were certain to keep track of specific statistics. How many candidates did we speak to? How many resumes did we capture? Were there any "hot" candidates, ones with whom we needed to follow up immediately? Many of my colleagues and I took notes on the back of the resumes to remind us of the candidates who piqued our interest, or, ones who sent up red flags! We were diligent with our commentary on the resumes. Without thoughtful and detailed notes, we could find ourselves with up to 500 resumes and no earthly idea whom to contact. What a mess! I recall spending upwards of thirty minutes with many of my top candidates, and closing the day with a weeks worth of interviews. If we were unable to schedule something on the spot, you could be certain they would be getting a call as early as the next day. Since our "goal" from these fairs was to hire approximately 3-20 candidates (depending on our initial estimate) we would immediately follow up with the candidates within one week. We were realistic about these people as well. They had just spent their free time meeting with an entire room of employers, and if we liked them, chances are other recruiters did too! We had to move fast!!

So, what happened to the resumes of the others? Those candidates who didn't necessarily make the top of the list? We took those resumes and entered them into our HR resume database (Brass Ring, Resumix or something similar) with an attached "job fair code" such as National Black MBA Association (NBMBA) or Washington Post Job fair (POST). This simplified the future process of searching for candidates we liked, but had nothing for at the time of the job fair. In truth, however, the vast majority of these candidates did not receive any further contact, and ultimately, did not get hired. Prior to closing the book on a specific job fair, we were sure to send all candidates a job fair specific, but otherwise generic, "thank you" letter.

How does a Job Seeker determine which Agenda it is? There are several ways for a job seeker to tell which category their "employer of choice" falls into. Are they interviewing on site, or scheduling interviews for later in the week? Do they have a list of positions posted at their table? Do they have their strong candidates speak with more than one person on site (one of whom is not in HR)? Is there anyone at the fair who is not in HR? If the answers to these questions are yes, there is a good chance this employer is in it to make hires.

If the employer is referring job seekers to their website to "see what is available," there may be a good reason to question the company's hiring goals at that event. After all, how will the employer know that they met this candidate at this job fair? Will they remember talking to this candidate? Will his/her resume go into a "black hole"? As you can probably guess, this approach may indicate a lack of urgency on their part to make hires from the event.

A job seeker should not hesitate to ask specific questions of the employer? And, remember, the employers who have made a commitment to hire from the event will have answers to these questions. Some of my favorites include:

  • "How does this job fair fit into your overall hiring strategy?"
  • "How many hires do you expect to make from this event?"
  • "For your top candidates, what is the next step in the process?"
Lastly, as a self-proclaimed career fair "aficionado" and an HR practitioner, I strongly recommend career fairs as a supplement to any strong job search. But remember, be attentive and always differentiate the companies who are in it to make hires, from those who are just there to get through the day!

2007 Laura M. Labovich. All Rights Reserved.