Job Fairs Go Virtual

By Jul 1, 2007
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Cover for July 2007 HR Magazine Using more realistic technology, more job seekers and recruiters are finding each other online.

When Susan Burns, worldwide talent acquisition leader for Seattle-based public relations agency Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, decided to participate in a virtual job fair in December sponsored by business publication PRWeek, she wanted to make sure her booth represented her company’s culture of excellence. So she set out to make her virtual booth the best booth at the fair. 

Visitors to the Waggener Edstrom virtual booth could watch two videos, text chat live with recruitment staff, read about openings at the company and download information about the agency. 

“I was particularly excited because it fit so well with who Waggener Edstrom is as a culture and a brand,” Burns says. “We gave the job seeker the opportunity to get to know us and to connect with us directly.” 

Driven in part by technology for popular video games that are making it possible to create ever more realistic scenarios, virtual job fairs now have the ability to use video, voice and text to connect job seekers with recruiters in a universe that spans continents. 

Consultants say the virtual job fair is still in the early adopter phase—and still nothing beats meeting a candidate face to face—but companies that consider themselves on the leading edge of human resources are taking note of the staffing opportunities derived from the burgeoning virtual world. 

Luring Job Seekers Online

Dave Lefkow, CEO of Seattle-based Talentspark, says virtual job fairs were popular in the 1990s, but the technology wasn’t advanced enough to make the experience meaningful. Today, however, that has changed. “The technology has emerged [and] become an immersive experience,” he says. 

At a virtual job fair, online visitors see a very similar setup to a regular job fair. They can listen to presentations, visit booths, leave resumes and business cards, participate in live chats, and get contact information from recruiters, HR managers and even hiring managers. The Waggener Edstrom booth included two six- to seven-minute videos—one that introduced the company culture and another that provided a discussion on innovation. 

“We put together something that would be fun and engaging for the audience,” Burns says. She explains that her goal was not just to make contact with candidates who could fill open positions, but to highlight the importance of innovation, openness and being on the cutting edge of public relations at Waggener Edstrom. 

Job seekers could log on, click on the Waggener Edstrom booth (one of 12 booths at the PRWeek fair) and enter the company’s virtual world where they had direct interaction with recruiters without leaving their desks. 

The event ran from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST, and Burns assigned eight recruiters to work in several-hour shifts (from their desks) to staff the company’s virtual booth. The recruiters chatted in real time with 350 of the 557 visitors to the Waggener Edstrom booth. 

Burns says the all-day event was a bit skewed toward entry-level applicants—typical for all types of job fairs—although they did see some senior-level people and international talent. “The breadth of geographical diversity was terrific,” she says. 

HR professionals aren’t the only ones singing the praises of today’s virtual job fairs. Recruiters are enthusiastic about being able to span time zones and man booths with qualified staff without having to pay travel or booth construction costs. And candidates like to be able to visit several companies without leaving their desk and avoid running into the HR manager from their company at the next booth. 

Building a New Main Street

For now, most virtual job fairs are run by a third party—such as a college, publication or association—that brings together companies. The benefit of having a third party run the job fair is that it usually has a mailing or e-mail list and publications it can use to advertise. 

Evelyne Balls, advertising manager at New York-based PRWeek, says December’s event was the publication’s first virtual job fair, and they are already planning another one for the fall. “We decided to have this event because it was new, cutting edge and the PR industry is in a crisis for talent. We thought this is a great way to let recruiters interact with candidates on a national level.” 

She says the 2,000 registered candidates created profiles before the event, including name, current employer (optional), industry sector, location and contact information. When a candidate clicked on a recruiter’s booth to enter it, the recruiter could see the candidate’s full profile and decide who would interact with the visitor. 

Thirteen companies and 1,000 job seekers attended, and each booth had an average of 563 visitors. At the end of the event, recruiters received a report that tracked all visitors. 

During the daylong event, PRWeek held two webcasts to help attract visitors—one on cool jobs in public relations at employers such as NASCAR and Comedy Central, and the second about working in public relations agencies. 

Balls says Menlo Park, Calif.-based Unisfair—the vendor that created the virtual job fair for PRWeek—provided a tool that allowed companies not only to upload logos and videos but also to design a booth. The $4,700 that companies paid PRWeek covered the costs of the booth, the tracking report and a 10- second pop-up ad. 

Doing What Comes Naturally

Doing a virtual job fair seemed like a natural fit for the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in Adelphi, Md. After all, the school conducts the majority of its courses online for students all over the world. 

In February, Katie Nailler, assistant director of career services, organized the university’s second virtual job fair with 31 employers and 1,000 students—double the number of employers that participated the year before. 

Nailler says UMUC also conducts face-to-face job fairs, which are valuable because, even with all the fancy technology of the virtual world, there’s nothing quite like the feel of a firm handshake. 

Anthony Randolph, staffing manager for the Maryland/D.C./Virginia market for Cingular Wireless in Greenbelt, Md., says he chose to join the UMUC fair as a way to branch out into different recruiting alternatives. 

He says he felt it was a cost-effective way to find candidates and market the company. Randolph adds that he found the software very easy to use. It took him only 20 minutes to set everything up for his booth—which looked like an office setting featuring information on open positions, company history and an audio commercial. Randolph received several e-mails from applicants both during and after the fair and says he would definitely participate again. 

Robert Duarte, senior principal recruiter at London-based defense and aerospace giant BAE Systems, says his company had 200 online visits to its booth at UMUC’s most recent fair. Duarte was looking for financial and systems administrator applicants. 

If Duarte liked a candidate’s profile, he engaged them in a text chat, and some applicants requested a chat with him. Duarte interviewed several candidates he met through the job fair but hadn’t hired anyone as of press time. 

Ramesh Sambasivan, co-founder and COO of Stillwater, Okla.-based, which created UMUC’s virtual job fair, says in the past five years he has seen a surge in demand for such events from employers eager to capitalize on the ease of access afforded by a virtual world. 

“There is an element of immediacy and instant gratification both for the hiring manager and for the job candidates that are coming to it,” Sambasivan says. 

Enhancing the Benefits Of Association

Associations are a natural fit for virtual job fairs because they often have access to a wide membership base in a focused area. The Bethesda, Md.-based Parenteral Drug Association (PDA), which provides science, technology and regulatory information for the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical community, has been hosting virtual career fairs for three years. 

Members of the association—pharmacists, scientists, researchers and executives in the pharmaceutical industry—are attractive to some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Wyeth and Schering-Plough. 

Ta-Mela Jeffries, coordinator for membership services and sales, says between five and 15 hiring organizations and 1,400 to 1,500 job seekers participate. Companies pay $5,000 for two days to have a booth. Jeffries says the association presents webcasts designed to help bring traffic to the site. 

She adds that the virtual job fairs tend to get more visitors than the job fairs the association holds at conferences. 

Jeffries has used Unisfair in the past to design and host the fair, but this time she’s trying Montreal, Quebec-based iCongo. Jeffries says attendees can submit their resumes to company representatives, download brochures and documents, ask questions, and schedule meetings online. Posted jobs include positions in research and development, regulatory affairs, quality assurance, quality control, manufacturing, compliance, and process validation. 

PDA advertises through a monthly print newsletter, a weekly print newsletter, scientific journals and, perhaps most important, an e-mail list of members. 

But not all virtual job fairs are hosted by large e-business companies and groups that charge thousands of dollars for a booth. Smaller groups are attempting to put on their own virtual events. 

New York City-based Orthodox Union (OU), a nonprofit umbrella organization, held its first virtual job fair in June. OU, which is best known for putting its stamp of approval on more than 400,000 kosher food products worldwide, is also active in adult education and community services for the Jewish community. 

Michael Rosner, OU’s job board director, contacted recruiters and HR directors to set up interviews with job seekers in a number of different categories. Many of the companies Rosner contacted had previously posted on OU’s job board, which has 1,200 listings. Rosner characterizes the event as “an actual job fair taking place over video conferencing.” 

The OU gathered resumes of job seekers and sent them to HR personnel,who selected the resumes that seemed to fit positions they were seeking to fill and requested interviews, which were scheduled by Rosner. 

While OU’s first virtual job fair concentrated on the New York metropolitan area, Rosner says he would like to expand future events to other regions of the country. This type of “grass-roots” virtual job fair shows that even the little guys can take advantage of burgeoning technology and awareness of the virtual world.

Elizabeth Agnvall is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Web Extras

SHRM article: Help Wanted: Virtually All Avatars Welcome to Apply (SHRM Online Staffing Management Focus Area)

SHRM article: Lights, Camera Interview! (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: Click Here for Nursing Jobs (HR Magazine)

SHRM video: Matthew Adam, VP of NAS Recruitment Communications (SHRM Online's Recruiting & Staffing Focus Area)

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