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Staffing Management: Tools & Techniques: 'Fair' Play

Kim Fernandez   7/1/2006
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Vol. 2, No. 3

Creativity and nontraditional approaches breathe new life into the old standbyjob fairs.

Traditional job fairs have gotten a bad rap when it comes to recruiting. At best, recruiters say, they're good for filling entry-level white-collar jobs and only some blue-collar jobs. At worst, they're a colossal waste of time for everyone, job seekers and recruiters alike.

But not all job fairs should be passed over. There are fairs that are valuable for filling all sorts of jobs, ranging from openings for customer service representatives to positions for vice presidents. The key, recruiting experts say, is in carefully selecting which fairs to buy space in and, alternatively, knowing how to hold one of your own.

"We've had much success with job fairs here," notes Michael Johnson, senior manager for talent acquisition at Aflac in Columbus, Ga. "We've tended to look at job fairs in very focused ways." He explains that, historically, Aflac has achieved great results when job fairs have been used to meet very specific needs.

Aflac, which participates in several major job fairs every year through public-private partnerships with the Georgia Department of Labor and Columbus Technical College, concentrates on finding candidates for entry-level positions and frequently must fill dozens of jobs at a time.

"We focus on fairs that provide candidates for high-volume positions, including [jobs in our] administrative unit …, customer call center, policy services [department] and claims division," says Johnson. "Specific job fairs have yielded many candidates who merited consideration."

Others say the same thing. Jamie Minier, vice president of The RightThing Inc., an HR outsourcing firm in Findlay, Ohio, notes that when clients are facing rapid expansion and need to fill lots of jobs, there's nothing quite like a job fair to find dozens—even hundreds—of potential candidates in one shot.

"When we're really trying to do certain things en masse, like if there's high-volume expansion at a site and our client has an extreme need for candidates, we'll do what I call 'secondary' job fairs or 'hiring events,' " she says, for example, for entry-level positions, particularly call-center jobs, that don't require any specific background.

Minier rarely, if ever, participates in job fairs that are open to anyone who wanders through the doors. "[Our] events aren't open in the sense that anyone can show up," she states. "They're more structured. Candidates have gone online and maybe scheduled interviews, and they have a preassigned time slot. They get a welcome pack when they arrive. They're prequalified."

Johnson says that most of the fairs Aflac participates in also prequalify attendees for specific positions or lines of work. "Our partnership has a team of staff members from the Georgia Department of Labor who … have recruiting expertise. So they do [the] screening for us. They do our typing testing. And they've referred to us 200 to 250 prescreened, prequalified candidates who have become part of our candidate pool for high-volume positions, every time we've held one of these fairs. In fact, we've hired about 200 specialists through this partnership. That's pretty significant."

The RightThing often hosts company-specific job fairs, which are held on site at the client's office. "If there are plant shutdowns or layoffs, we strongly suggest [that] … our clients in the same or a similar industry … hold a fair in that town," says Minier. "It's a great tool. And the communities will support them at a very low cost."

Her company frequently hosts open-house events at clients' offices. Visitors are taken on tours or shown videos about a company and its opportunities and asked if they would like to fill out applications or leave resumes. "We do this when we're trying to get awareness for a new client in a specific location," she says. "Everyone wants to know [more about the] organization. It's pretty successful."

Minier and Johnson agree that college and university job fairs can be very useful. Participating companies can specify which majors and degrees they're looking for, and can often recruit candidates with master's degrees for management or other upper-level positions.

Making the Most Of the Fair

Recruiters who participate in job fairs say that a little homework goes a long way toward ensuring that they come away from a job fair or large recruiting event with a list of strong candidates.

"We're looking at some major expansion and adding on to existing facilities," Johnson notes. "We'll be hiring for about 2,000 positions over the next few years. And we have to really consider ROI [return on investment]. We've got to expect, when we participate in a job fair, that there are going to be some results and there will be some talented candidates there who meet our requirements."

Some of that potential for success hinges on the positions a company is trying to fill. Minier says there are some industries and positions that lend themselves to mass recruiting more than others. "We've had lots of success in the pharmaceutical and financial industries. In pharmaceuticals, we have luck finding traditional sales reps. They're outgoing, and they want to impress recruiters and find what's best for them." And financial jobs, she adds, are high-volume and entry-level.

Liz Ryan, CEO of WorldWIT in Boulder, Colo., and BusinessWeek columnist and CNN careers commentator, says there are five steps to making a job fair worthwhile for recruiters:

Choose wisely. "Job fairs run the gamut from cattle calls to highly specialized gatherings," she says. In most cases, recruiters should choose a career-specific fair.

Be prepared. "If you can't speak knowledgeably about the job openings and do at least a first-level screen, there's very little reason to attend the job fair at all," she says.

Spend time. She recommends dedicating a corner of the exhibit booth to interviewing. Set up a few chairs, sit down, and talk to candidates who wander in.

Follow up. Ryan tells recruiters to separate candidates into three pools: one for people who should be interviewed for immediate openings, a second for individuals who should be added to a database so they can be contacted when suitable openings develop and a third for those candidates who should be sent a "thanks for visiting" letter.

Evaluate and plan ahead. "After each job fair, assess the fair's effectiveness against your goals and decide whether to return next time," she says.

That last point, Minier advises, is key. "If you've got an organizer who's been around for awhile, he or she should be able to tell you how many attendees [to expect] …, past success rates in terms of hires, and what kind of publicity … [will be done] for the fair." She says that such information should tell potential exhibitors exactly who might attend a particular fair and the types of positions that are appropriate for recruiting there.

Forgo the Traditional Fair

Some recruiters have come up with creative ways to use the job fair concept without actually attending any formal fairs. H. Martin de'Campo, founder of outsourcing recruiting firm Humanatek .com in Oakland, Calif., says his firm successfully exhibits at all sorts of events, from foot races to beer festivals.

"I call it the portable job fair," he says. "We show up places where no one's really expecting someone to be recruiting. We find that the demographics at events like runs and ... rock concerts are the kinds of demographics we want." representatives will dress appropriately for the event—in running togs for a race, for example—and start talking to other people at the event. Although event-goers may not be actively looking for jobs, they frequently find themselves on the top-candidate list for all sorts of positions.

"We picked up a VP of marketing in San Francisco for NBC Olympics," de'Campo relates. "This guy was at the Beta Breakers run. We set up a booth there and talked about positions [for which] we were hiring. … It's a benign situation where nobody's looking for a job."

The company also hosts career dinners, where dozens of potential candidates for jobs are invited to four-star meals. "We might invite 60 people for 15 openings," de'Campo says. "We feed them, talk to them, give them literature, and roll out the red carpet to hire all the people we need at that one event."

By approaching people who are already employed, de'Campo says, he winds up with a very small, very specific pool of candidates for upper-level jobs. "People who are looking for work are not always the most ideal people for openings," he says. "At a traditional job fair, you've got this cattle call of employers going out to the same pool of employees, and they may not be the most qualified candidates. You're going to get the talent you need if you go out and initiate."

Kim Fernandez is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md. She frequently writes for association magazines.

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