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How to navigate the job fair maze

Globe and Mail Update

Terry Thompson was all set to head out the door to represent his employer at a Toronto job fair last October when his boss walked into his office and handed him a pink slip. The firm was downsizing, and Mr. Thompson's position as a job developer was among the first to go.

Rather than head home to mope, Mr. Thompson made a beeline for his intended destination.

“I didn't plan on representing myself, but it worked out very well,” he remembers.

Mr. Thompson strolled into the auditorium and browsed the booths, keeping an eye out for companies that interested him. Having just been let go, he didn't have a résumé prepared, but he introduced himself to some recruiters, told them about his work experience and let them know he was looking for work.

Mr. Thompson landed three interviews that day, and was eventually offered a higher-paying position in sales management at Highland Feather Inc., a Toronto-based manufacturer of down bedding, where he worked until last month when he took another job as a project manager for a school board.

A numbers game

Job fairs, those all-you-can-eat career buffets where employers and wannabe employees gather to try to make a connection, have been around for years. But in today's uncertain job market, their value proposition – access for job hunters to dozens of employers under one roof – has become even more significant.

On the upside, job fairs are part trade show, part speed networking service, and offer job seekers the chance to make face-to-face contact with dozens of employers at one time. In some cases, recruiters will even interview candidates on the spot.

But buyer beware: job seekers can get lost in the crowd. Attending fairs can be an overwhelming and futile exercise for job seekers who go unprepared or if employers really aren't in hiring mode.

Still, they should be on the radar of those doing everything to hunt down a job.

“In an economy that's tightening, you cannot do enough to get yourself out there,” says Alan Kearns, founder of Career Joy, a career-coaching firm with offices in Toronto and Ottawa.

Because job fairs provide job seekers access to face time with up to hundreds of potential employers, they're a fast, efficient way to network and pass a résumé around. “The more people you meet, the better,” Mr. Kearns says.

Quantity may not equal quality

Last month, Meghan Drover, a recent MBA graduate from Saint Mary's University in Halifax, attended a major job fair in the city, hoping to power schmooze with potential employers.

She managed to hand out some résumés, but left after two hours feeling as though she'd wasted her time. She'd come prepared to sell her work experience in economic development and educational background.

But as she walked from booth to booth talking to employers, she found that many asked her to apply online when she got home.

And that wasn't all. “A lot of the booths didn't have anyone with any hiring power,” she says. In fact, one of the supposed employers told Ms. Drover the firm was currently under a hiring freeze. “I had to wonder why they bothered showing up.”

From hiring hotbeds to passive pastures

Allison Guld, director of talent acquisition at Vancouver-based interactive agency Blast Radius, notes that while job fairs were hot hiring grounds for information technology jobs in the 1990s, they now constitute a more passive form of recruiting. With increasingly sophisticated skill requirements and more rigorous screening, recruiters don't go expecting to make a quick hire. In the age of social networking, job fairs have become an in-the-flesh version of Facebook.

“It's about creating visibility and pushing out information about your firm,” says Ms. Guld, who primarily attends campus job fairs to encourage co-op students and new graduates to apply to her firm, rather than conduct on-the-spot interviews to fill jobs.

Job fairs are an important part of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP's recruitment strategy, even though recruitment teams don't do any on-the-spot hiring, says Lily Delaney, PwC's senior manager of experienced recruiting based in Toronto.

“It's a way for us to open up the talent pool and get a more diverse group of candidates,” she notes. For example, the firm had a booth at a recent job fair targeting gay, lesbian and transgender students.

But while Crystal Cowie, manager of career services at Saint Mary's University's Sobey School of Business, advises her students to attend as many career fairs as possible, she warns them to keep expectations in check.

“They're a way to research employers and potentially make a contact,” she says. “If you're expecting to secure a job, it's not the most successful method. A more targeted search is better.”

A matter of definition

What to make, then, of Marcell Marshall's experience?

Last year, she accompanied an unemployed friend to a job fair at Centennial College in Toronto. Ms. Marshall, a seasoned sales rep, had a job at the time, but she brought along some résumés anyway and introduced herself to five potential employers. She did two interviews on the spot, got callbacks from three employers and, within a week, received two job offers.

“I was flabbergasted by the response I got,” she says. She accepted one of the offers, a more senior sales position at ISBC Corporate Services in Milton, Ont., which specializes in pre-employment screening.

So why did Ms. Marshall have a bounty of responses when Ms. Drover could barely hand out a résumé?

It turns out that all job fairs aren't created equal. Some promise available jobs, while others offer, at best, a chance to network.

According to Rita Persaud, founder of Napp Canada, a Toronto-based job fair organizer, it comes down to how you define a job fair.

“In my mind, if it's a job fair it means the employers must be hiring,” says Ms. Persaud, who specifies that employers at Napp-organized job fairs must be offering at least three jobs, and hire within three weeks of the fair in order to attend again. She distinguishes job fairs from career fairs or job expos, where employers aren't typically looking to make a direct hire.

And how do you know if you're going to an event that actually has cold, hard jobs up for grabs? Just ask, Ms. Persaud says.

“Many organizers track the employers and keep records on who they hired and how long it took them,” she says.

Do your homework

Going to job fairs without first researching the companies attending is a guaranteed waste of time, Ms. Persaud says.

“Big job fairs can be overwhelming for a job seeker,” she says, and suggests attendees get a list of employers that will be there, make a short list of five to 10 that they want to meet, and prepare a list of questions to engage a recruiter in conversation.

And because attending a job fair is a little like advertising in the Yellow Pages – there you are, right next to your competition – Ms. Persaud says a little assertiveness won't hurt. For example, don't be shy about asking a recruiter if he or she is actively recruiting for specific jobs, or just looking for exposure.

“If you're really interested in working for that company, tell them,” she advises. Put your résumé into their hands – not onto a pile, she suggests – and ask for a business card so that you can send a follow up e-mail.

Experts also recommend attending job fairs targeted to your industry. “The more specific the job fair, the more efficient it is for job seekers and employers,” says David Aplin, chief executive officer of Calgary-based David Aplin Recruiting.

Dress the part

“You are there representing your brand,” says Jennifer McCleary, director of the Centre for Business Career Development at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton. Dress as though you're going to an interview, take along business cards and résumés and have a personal elevator pitch practised and ready. “If you're not focused and prepared to represent yourself in the best light, you probably shouldn't be there,” Ms. McCleary says.

Mind your queues

“Job fairs are most effective when a company sends the right team,” Mr. Aplin says. In general, the more senior people at the booth, the more likely they'll be able to influence hiring decisions. Watch for booths where there's a lineup, and recruiters are on their feet talking to candidates – chances are good the firm takes the job fair seriously and is actively looking for new blood, he says.

If at first you don't succeed

Of course, the fact that you weren't offered a job on the spot doesn't make a job fair a waste of time.

Just ask Ken Fox, a Fredericton native who graduated last year with a degree in business administration from the University of New Brunswick. He attended Futures Atlantic, a symposium and job fair for finance careers last fall at his alma mater. He didn't get a job right away, but did make some senior industry contacts and kept in touch over the next few months.

Ultimately they helped him land his dream job last spring as an analyst at TD Securities Inc. in Calgary. Having attended his share of lame duck job fairs in the past, he takes a pragmatic view.

“It opened the door,” he says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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