Focus on Employment & Staffing: Job Fair Challenges for HR

By Martha Frase-Blunt Apr 1, 2002
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HR Magazine, April 2002Job Fair Challenges for HR

How recruiters can target and attract the best prospects in a sea of candidates.

In October, more than 10,000 job seekers filled Madison Square Garden for the first Twin Towers Job Fair, intended for displaced New York workers in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The massive turnout took organizers by surprise, and, by mid-afternoon, thousands lining up outside were sent away.

In January, scores of the 4,500 laid-off Enron workers showed up for a job fair at Houston’s Enron Field. The exhibitors had few jobs to offer, however, and many of the open positions paid considerably less than former employees of the bankrupt energy trading firm had been earning.

Even in cities that have not faced massive layoffs, job fairs have taken on an air of desperation. Job Fair USA, based in Lakeville, Mass., hosts nationwide

employment events, but they are drawing fewer exhibitors and many more job seekers, says president Jesse Medford. “Exhibitors find themselves collecting more resumes than they know what to do with and no longer see the point of attending a job fair when they could get just as many resumes on the Internet,” he laments. “They believe that the most-qualified candidates don’t go to job fairs.”

Target Practice for HR

A general job fair is likely to attract a herd of unemployed—and unemployable—attendees, but HR should not give up on this recruiting tool. “There are certainly career fairs out there that specialize in getting as many candidates through the door as possible,” says Wendy Hodgkins, manager of client services at Career Conferences of America Inc. in Natick, Mass. She reminds recruiters that quantity and quality are not equal. “It’s important to remember the value of networking and also of presenting yourself as an employer in the marketplace, so it would be foolish to discount career fairs in their entirety as a waste of time.”

Job fairs of the future will likely be more industry- or skill-specific events that offer more satisfactory candidates, says Medford. College job fairs will continue to be important recruiting and networking options for entry-level positions. But the biggest draws these days tend to be diversity organizations’ events linked to an annual membership conference.

Monica Reed, who manages events for the HR department of Prudential Insurance in Newark, N.J., used to sign up for general job fairs, but she found they were attracting unemployable candidates. “So we started looking at targeted job fairs for financial professionals, particularly when we had several hard-to-fill vacancies, or a number of open positions we needed to fill right away,” she says, adding that the company also focuses on diversity events.

Mike Hall, president of Personnel Strategies Inc. in Minnetonka, Minn., agrees that targeted job fairs work better in the current marketplace and are still a strong option for recruiters. A specialized job fair—one that targets a particular skill or industry, or attracts candidates from underrepresented groups—can draw employed candidates who are looking casually, rather than the unemployed masses. “For those who want discretion and won’t put their resume out on the Internet, job fairs provide passive candidates a way to look for other opportunities, to exercise their curiosity with no risk.”

On Your Mark, Get Set, Hire

How can HR professionals who’ve settled on the right career fair make the most of the frantic booth-jockey experience? One key is not to leave the marketing entirely up to the hosts. “You can’t rely on the promoter to market to your ideal candidates,” says Daniel Parrillo, president and staffing consultant for Strategi LLC in Stockton, Calif. He favors sending personal e-mail invitations to candidates in his database. “Go through your database and find all resumes that have been submitted for a specific position for the past 30 to 90 days prior to the event. Then search by ZIP codes in the vicinity of the job fair, extract the e-mail addresses and broadcast a message.

“Candidates who might not have known about or considered the job fair might attend if they know your company is going to be there. It’s a great way to get additional traffic to your booth.”

Medford advises recruiters to sign up early to make sure their company is included in any advance advertising. Early birds also get the best real estate. Some job fairs charge a premium for the best booth positioning, and this is usually a good investment, job fair veterans agree. If you want a particular spot, just ask.

Prudential gets more bang from its job fair buck by exploring additional branding opportunities, Reed notes. “If we are doing a national conference, we look for places to put our signage—some hotels will even imprint your logo on the room card keys. It’s so important to get and keep their attention.” She adds that having a visually appealing booth is critical. Even inexpensive gimmicks such as balloons can attract attention.

Countering the Cattle Call

Clearly, one of the most difficult feats for employers is distinguishing themselves from all the other glad-handing, resume-amassing exhibitors, while also forging meaningful connections with the right candidates. It’s all too easy to come away with a few vague impressions and a crush of paper. That’s why it’s critical to have a game plan as well as players in place who can make the score.

“You have to bring good people to the show, good communicators who don’t want to just sit behind the table,” says Hall. The booth also should be populated by plenty of hiring managers, preferably those with open positions.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see at job fairs is not having enough people at the booth,” Reed says. Make sure you have the people you need, and make sure they’re prepared. “The night before the conference, we have a strategy meeting with the team, so if the booth gets busy, anyone can talk about job descriptions.”

Recruiters should make each visitor feel like the only person in the entire hall. Having a private place to conduct spot interviews with promising candidates is helpful. If the fair is taking place at a hotel, consider booking a suite in which the best prospects can relax with hiring managers after the event.

Screen Door

The challenge of pre-screening visitors to your booth is immense and unremitting, and it can have an effect on whether the job fair experience is a success or a failure. One simple approach is to display job descriptions for the company’s open positions so visitors can eliminate themselves early according to their own interests and skills. Also, position an HR person up front to intercept visitors and conduct a rough experience-and-interest evaluation.

After the initial informal screen, which should be conversational and friendly, hiring managers can step in for a more thorough evaluation. Adrienne C. Trimble, assistant manager for Workforce Planning at Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America in Erlanger, Ky., hits more than a dozen college job fairs each year. When students approach the Toyota booth, the team goes into action: “The HR recruiter will start the dialogue, talking about the company and the opportunities, feeling them out about their interests,” Trimble says. “We try to have them complete a short profile sheet with very specific questions about their experience with particular equipment, salary expectations and geographic preferences—anything that will indicate a fit. As a next step, we have hiring managers on the spot, ready to assess skills and discuss the departmental cultures.” Trimble adds that the company is considering adding computer kiosks next year so candidates can enter their own data to ease traffic flow around the booth.

Closing the Deal

So whatever happened to those 3,000 resumes you collected at your last job fair? Before Toyota implemented the profile sheets, Trimble says, “we had stacks of resumes and would go crazy trying to remember each person.” She now also takes a notebook computer to log data about candidates with whom managers want to follow up right away.

Parrillo agrees that HR must quickly identify and follow up on the best candidates. He often puts their resumes directly into his briefcase. “I’ve seen ideal candidates get lost in the shuffle until their resume emerges three weeks later—too late.”

For the most promising candidates, follow up that evening, or certainly within 48 hours, says Hall. The next tier of candidates should get a follow-up e-mail message, perhaps to schedule an appointment. Candidates who don’t fit the company’s immediate needs should get an acknowledgment card.

Is the job fair a dying art? Not as long as fairs directly produce hires. “If companies can make at least one good hire from an event, the booth has paid for itself,” says Hall. “Those who regularly work the job fairs should be doing two to five hires per show.” Job fair costs, including the space leasing, advertising and the cost of a display, can run from $2,000 to $5,000. But such figures shouldn’t be compared with the lower cost of an Internet job posting that may yield as many resumes. “Even our clients who spend more on Internet recruiting still have to create a one-on-one meeting with candidates,” Hall says. “Job fairs allow proactivity and give hiring managers a chance to get out from behind the desk and network with professionals.”

Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

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