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There’s more to a career fair than just the fair

Here are four facts that add up to one conclusion.

One, the unemployment rate and the number of unemployed workers is on a steady trend downward. Two, job creation is on a strong trend upward. Three, approximately 3.6 million jobs are unfilled in America right now because the skills needed are lacking (and that trend is moving up). Four, it is expected that the number of career fairs will continue to rise in 2013 and that the number of employers attending also will rise.

The conclusion, then, is easy to reach: Attendance at career fairs, while always an integral part of comprehensive job searches, is now more critical than ever. With more jobs becoming available – literally by the day – and more of the companies creating those jobs congregating in the same place at the same time (the fair), there’s only one conclusion you can reach.

So just how many jobs are becoming available by the day? When the 2012 numbers are finalized, there will have been about 8,000 jobs created every working day of the year. In 2013, it’s likely to be 12,000. Every day! That’s a lot of reasons to attend job fairs.

Add to that the jobs that will open up because of retirement and other natural factors, plus 3.6 million jobs that employers would like to fill if skilled candidates were available, and we’re talking (ideally, of course) about job opportunities for more than half the unemployed job seekers in the whole country. Obviously, it doesn’t work out quite that neatly, but is there any question about the improving picture?

So the question is not whether attendance at a career fair is a good idea. There are more questions than that. For instance, why do employers like career fairs? How do I find these fairs? How do I decide which to attend? How do I prepare? How do I make the most out of the day? How do I make a great first impression? What should I not do at the fair? And what do I do after the fair (follow up)? Good questions all, so here goes.

What’s the big deal?

Employers (not all, but many smart ones) favor career fairs for three simple reasons.

First, fairs are a highly interactive front end of the recruiting process. With cyber-mountains of resumes coming in each day (one hardly distinguishable from the next) it stands to reason that if an employer can look at you, shake hands and engage in a short but meaningful conversation, then some quick decisions can be made, such as whether you should be invited for interviews or, perhaps, considered for more than one position, and so forth. All that can happen in minutes.

Second, employers can make those decisions on more job seekers in one day than by all other recruiting methods combined – a no-brainer. And third, employers also get a chance to put their best foot forward and attract the best candidates.

Where’s the fair?

Career fairs are plentiful, but a perfect place to start looking is right here in this paper; you can expect to find eight fairs this year in this paper alone (and on its website). Surely, a simple Web search will find many more as well.

To go or not to go

Which fairs to attend is a good question with a simple answer. Unless a fair is for a specific industry or profession that has absolutely nothing to do with your career, you should go to the fair. Even if there are only a few employers you would like to meet, it’s time well spent. Besides, you might find that there are employers that you hadn’t previously considered that are now of interest to you. An open mind is your true guide in deciding which fairs to attend.

Prepare, prepare, prepare!

Follow the “Three-P” rule: Prepare, prepare, prepare. The biggest pet peeve of hiring executives is the attendee with no clue what’s going on and asks questions such as: “What does your company do?” Show up like that, and you might as well just go to the beach. You’ll leave the fair with the same number of opportunities as you had before you got there. Preparation for a career fair involves several steps:

n Establish goals: Landing a job is not a realistic goal for a career fair. Meeting 20 new employers is. So is learning about companies, gaining follow-up opportunities or networking.

n Identify employers: Do that in advance. Fairs always have employer lists posted online or in the newspaper ahead of time. Don’t limit yourself by just visiting employers in your specific line of work or industry. Where else can your transferable skills be utilized? Think creatively.

n Research the employers: The more you know about employers, the more smart questions you’ll have. You’ll figure out if you want to pursue them. Check their websites, especially “About Us” and “Employment” sections. Then do a general search to find out what others (news, etc.) are saying about them. Remember, what’s on their website is what they want you to know. Use your public library. No matter how much research you do, the reference librarian in your public library can help you learn more. Know anybody who works there? Or someone who does? Getting a personal viewpoint can be insightful.

n Bring what you need: Have multiple resumes, a pen, a portfolio and personal business cards.

Maximizing your time

Time is your only irreplaceable asset. Waste it and it’s gone forever. So …

n Decide which employers to visit: You can’t see them all, so set your priorities. Fairs are usually four to six hours and, with waiting lines, you’ve got to get to your most important targets. Make your A, B and C lists. Stick to them.

n Plan the day: Choose your targets and check the floor plan so you’ll know exactly where you’ll go once the doors open. Arrive 30 minutes early to register (if you haven’t done so online) and be one of the first ones in.

n Have a “punchy” 15-20 second introduction: Understand recruiters’ situations. They will see hundreds of candidates, so you’re not going to get much time. Work on a concise message that delivers your message quickly and with impact: “Hello, I’m Mary Smith. I have an associate degree in business from (the community college) and four years of market research experience. I think I’d be a great fit for the marketing position at (the company) because of my past experience.” Pretty good, right? Plan some good questions. A brief but memorable conversation – even two minutes – can go a long way.

n Don’t be intimidated by long lines: Determine that you’ll see every company that interests you before you leave. If you have to wait in line, this is the perfect chance for a little time management. Review your questions, make notes, go over material you researched about them or material you just picked up from another booth.

Make a good first impression

You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression and, for sure, career fairs are all about first impressions. So first, look like the professional they want to hire.

Dress neatly and conservatively: blue suit, white or pale blue shirt, small-patterned tie for men; or scarf, blouse, shined black shoes, little or no jewelry, no visible tattoos, neatly combed hair and no perfume for women.

Carry a portfolio with plenty of copies of your resume and a pad for notes. Women, carry a small purse, not the largest bag you can find. Men, if you have a moustache or beard, see that they are trimmed and well-groomed. Now smile!

Next, a few simple actions go a long way. Stand up straight while waiting in line to talk to the recruiter. They’re watching you, whether you know it or not. When it’s your turn, step up confidently, establish eye contact, smile and offer a firm handshake. Introduce yourself and then give your 15-second “elevator speech.”

Express interest in the jobs they are filling. Finally, what you say is part of your first impression. Start with “Hello” then deliver a short introduction. Ask questions, making this a two-way conversation, for as long as it lasts.

When done, thank them for their time and then ask them for an interview. It’s what you want, so ask for it! Then part with another smile and handshake.

How to get disqualified

At fairs, recruiters don’t hire immediately but they sure do disqualify candidates immediately. Here’s what candidates do to get themselves disqualified.

n Inappropriate dress: No matter what kind of fair it is, no matter what kinds of jobs, put on your “Sunday best.” Showing up in jeans, sweats, basketball jerseys, provocative club outfits or anything other than a suit and tie for men or a suit and scarf for women is what we’re talking about.

n Being unprepared: If you haven’t done enough research ahead of time – so that you know about the company and what they do – you may as well spin your wheels somewhere else.

n A forgettable introduction: You’re not the only candidate the recruiter will see that day. A rambling, bumbling, unfocused introduction (anything more than about 15 seconds) will work against you.

n Not having copies of your resume: Running out of resumes is just plain inexcusable.

n Grabbing all the freebies: Resist the temptation to pick up all the freebies at the employers’ tables. By the end of the day you’ll be carrying around pens, Nerf balls, mints, key chains, mouse pads and all manner of unnecessary paraphernalia – not the image you want to portray. That’s not what you’re there for; you’re there for a job.

n Hanging around too long: Once you’re done, move on. Don’t hover, hoping to get another chance to talk. You’re being either a pest or a stalker, and neither one will move you forward.

n Forgetting to follow up: Even though this is after the fair, it’s really part of the fair. Follow up immediately via email – and then by phone or letter. No follow-up? No chance!

The candidate who follows up – and follows through – has the advantage. Keep up the momentum. When the career fair is over, your work has just begun. Here are six action points.

n Review: Make notes about each company. Look them over and write down your impressions. These notes will serve you well in the near future.

n That great second impression: Send a follow-up email, thanking them for their time, expressing heightened interest and asking for an interview.

n Prioritize: Create a prioritized follow-up list based on your interest level. Now follow up.

n More research time: Now you know more about them and your research can be more focused and deep. This is when you decide they’re still on your “most wanted” list.

n Make contact: Although many recruiters don’t want you calling, many others are waiting to see who’s ambitious enough to do exactly that. Don’t be afraid. You have every reason to call. You are looking for a job, aren’t you?

n Be forthright and up front: When you call, waste no time in getting to your point. Thank the recruiter again and ask for a meeting. That’s what you want, so ask. It’s how you attain your goal.

It’s easy to see how important career fairs are. And now it should be easy to see that there’s more to a career fair than just the few hours you spend at the fair.

Much more.

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