Career Fairs Go Virtual in Reaction to Pandemic

Users say interest in virtual recruitment to remain after health crisis recedes

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer May 18, 2020
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​Some companies are still hiring during the coronavirus pandemic, and many are turning to virtual career fairs and hiring events to find candidates. Being able to connect with job seekers in a chat-based virtual environment has been a tremendous asset since in-person events are effectively forbidden.

Virtual hiring event platforms use chat technology and teleconferencing to simulate the interactions between job seekers, recruiters and hiring managers at in-person events. Applicants can ask questions about companies and specific roles, upload their resumes and go through screening interviews.

The events are easy to promote and manage, effectively capture attendee data, and offer a personalized experience regardless of candidates' physical location—with a lot less overhead than traditional career fairs.

Mercy, a not-for-profit health system based in St. Louis, began using virtual career fairs in 2015, primarily for nursing roles. "Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we started using it for all positions," said Scott Sell, vice president of talent selection and executive recruitment.

"With COVID-19 keeping people at home, this is becoming very popular among our candidates," added Kayla Drady, director of talent acquisition strategy and operations at Mercy. More than 330 people have attended the health care employer's 15 virtual events held since February, resulting in more than 50 interviews and 30 new hires so far.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Jane Ormerod, senior director of talent acquisition at SAIC in Reston, Va., said that of the hundreds of hiring events her team attended last year, only a few were virtual, but they've pulled off 10 virtual events in just the last few weeks. COVID-19 has "certainly changed the way our team is operating," she said.

"There's been a sharp spike in interest and demand," said Joe Matar, vice president of marketing at Brazen, one of the leading providers of virtual hiring event technology, based in Arlington, Va. Since early March, there's been an increased steady demand for information about the platform and a significant rise in the number of events being hosted. "Before the crisis, we were hosting about 100 events per week," Matar said. "Now it's up to 300-500 events per week."

That surge has come from retailers like CVS Health, health care organizations, technology companies and K-12 educational institutions, Matar said. "We've also had a lot of interest from workforce development groups and state employment agencies looking to connect unemployed workers with employers that are still hiring."

Matar said companies that have paused hiring have also used the technology to redeploy their furloughed and laid-off workers to companies that are bringing on staff.

More Companies Going Virtual

Jenny Skundrich, senior vice president of client strategy at Recruitics, a recruitment marketing agency based in New York City, said that 83 percent of in-person hiring events have been canceled, postponed and/or made virtual, according to an in-house survey. You can find out more about virtual recruiting practices here.

In addition, the survey found that:

  • 46 percent of employers are not using virtual hiring events.
  • 45 percent are using the technology more since the onset of the pandemic.
  • 6 percent reported steady use since before COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, Stamford, Conn.-based telecommunications company Spectrum only used virtual hiring event technology to follow up with candidates who didn't show up to in-person events, said Jennifer Tracy, vice president of recruiting solutions at the company. Spectrum's in-person career fairs focused on high-volume roles such as call center representatives, field technicians and retail sales staff. The company is currently ramping up hiring in several markets and has completely transitioned its high-volume hiring to a virtual environment.

The talent acquisition team at Northrup Grumman had previously used virtual career fairs only for select channels such as college and diversity recruiting. "Before COVID-19, it was a quick and effective way in a scaled fashion to talk to a lot of people at once and down-select to candidates we wanted to bring in to interview," said Peter Brooks, vice president of talent acquisition at the global aerospace and defense technology company in Falls Church, Va. "It was a great way to engage with interested students in lieu of sending recruiters to campuses all over the country. Now it's gone from being an option to being a necessity. Without some sort of virtual interaction right now, hiring would be dead in the water."

Matar said that event attendance has also spiked since the coronavirus upended the labor market. "Typically, we'd see about a 50 percent attendance rate for registered job seekers, but it has gotten to as high as 90 percent."

Around 150 candidates at most would attend Mercy's in-person career fairs, said Tammy Hager, executive director of talent selection for the health system. "Now, more than 250 people are attending each virtual fair. Our talent scouts can chat with up to four candidates at a time," she said.

"It comes down to the fact that people are losing their jobs, so more people are serious about finding a new one," Matar said. "That, and more people becoming more comfortable with virtual interactions."

Flexibility, Efficiency Top Benefits

Users and experts agree that the No. 1 selling point for hosting virtual hiring events is flexibility—for job seekers and recruiters. "The best feature is being able to meet the candidates where they are—not limited by location," Ormerod said.

"Obviously, there are some significant travel costs and other expenses associated with in-person career fairs that are ultimately alleviated with this virtual technology," Sell said. "The online, cloud-based platform makes it easy for candidates to sign in from their home to participate in 1-on-1 chats with our recruiters."

Meeting and screening potential candidates virtually instead of in person also streamlines the hiring process. "At an in-person event, recruiters are in conversations with people and can't stop to see if they've applied for the job," Tracy said. "In the virtual chat-based event, recruiters can have another screen up to check to see if they've applied and can be setting up a phone screen for someone else. The multitasking allows the turnaround to be a lot quicker and more efficient."

Still Some Hesitation

The most obvious deficit to holding virtual events is the lack of in-person interaction. "Traditionally, if we hold events at one of our campuses, there is a component at the event which is contextual—that includes a tour, as well as speaking to executives and potential co-workers, and seeing our technology first-hand," Brooks said. "There is some physical context that you lose. For some candidates it isn't as important, but for others, especially where relocation is involved—it is."

Sell agreed that some candidates interested in seeing the physical campus location may be disappointed, and the lack of face-to-face contact was initially a concern for hiring managers as well. "But since COVID-19, they have adapted very well to the new model and have expressed desire to continue with virtual career fairs and interviews once social distancing and travel bans are relaxed," he said.

While there has been a substantial increase in usage of virtual hiring events, there are still many companies that have not taken advantage of the tactic.

 A lot of companies don't know how or where to start with virtual hiring events, Skundrich said. "In-person events are scheduled very far out, so shifting those events into virtual can be daunting, and those events can include hundreds of people or more. You also need recruiter bandwidth, and enough staff to man the event to answer questions. Many also don't realize that there are platforms out there that host the technology on the company's behalf."

Matar said that some hiring managers believe that in-person meetings are the only legitimate way to build relationships with candidates in the hiring process. 

"Those hiring managers need to understand that typically, this is not supposed to replace interviews and relationship building," he said. "They need to realize that this technology is meant to be at the top of the funnel. Look at it as more of an active conversation at the pre-screening phase that you don't get by just scanning resumes."

Brooks said that virtual events can be a strategic engagement tool even for companies not hiring right now. "It's important to keep presence in the market, letting potential candidates know you're still out there," he said. "One way or another you will have backfill situations to accommodate and it's important to keep your foot in the door and continue to tell your story for when hiring starts back up again."


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