Exactly two years ago, I went to a job fair where 45 of the organizations I was targeting in my job search were in attendance as exhibitors. I remember spending days just conducting research on all the organizations, scouring their websites, their job boards, printing out the job fair agenda and list of exhibitors, and making notes (with highlights) on each and every one. I even grouped organizations into three groups: top priority, medium priority, and pass. I prepared my elevator pitch. I printed out 20 copies of my job search marketing plan and 20 copies of my resume. On the day of the job fair, I went in armed with all my printouts, notes, and business cards.
I didn’t get a job out of that job fair, but that wasn’t my standard of measure. By the end of the evening, my feet were sore, but I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had spoken to most of the organizations in all three groups. I had identified which organizations I should continue to follow and which ones to cross off my list. A lot of the recruiters did not accept resumes and some took business cards, but I had a handful of business cards and new contacts. I felt like the job fair had reinvigorated my job search.
Would I say that I conquered the job fair? The question didn’t occur to me until today…
This afternoon, I attended the same job fair as a “recruiter.” Yesterday, my project’s HR recruiter asked me to attend the job fair with him to help answer questions from a non-HR employee’s perspective. (It was a stroke of luck that the second HR person who was originally supposed to attend the job fair had called out sick two days in a row.)
The job fair was five hours long, but I was only able to get out of the office for two hours. The two hours were interesting, exhausting, and enlightening. There was never a break longer than a few seconds in between Job seekers who stopped at our table. I was quickly worn out and here’s why:
- A lot of people had elevator pitches. Some were brief and straight to the point, some were long, and some were inaudible because the person was speaking so softly.
- I had to shake a lot of hands. Some were sincere (strong grip, confident, and the person looked me in the eyes), some were half-assed (weak and limp), and two people didn’t bother to shake my hand.
- A few people who came up to the table asked me what our NGO does. A few people seemed to venture a guess on the spot and were close to the mark. Some people had a general idea. Ultimately, it was the handful of people who knew exactly what we do, what our mission is, and have explored our website who stood out to me.
- A lot of people asked me which positions we were currently hiring for. In this day and age, if you don’t know how to use Google, you immediately rub me the wrong way.
- One person, a sophomore in college, even asked me what classes she should take in order to get a job in our organization! When I asked her what her interests and passion were, she could not answer me. Recruiters do not want to hire robots–be your own person, be able to think for yourself, and ask intelligent questions.
Ironic how just two years ago, I was at the same job fair on the other side of the table as a job seeker. Having been on both sides now, here are the lessons I have learned:
- The one person who stood out to me was a young man who had a firm handshake (while meeting my eyes) and immediately jumped into questions about my job title, how long I had been working at the NGO, and if I enjoy my job. After learning that I was not in HR, he was able to ask questions related to my work. In less than three minutes, he had gained insight on the work environment, my scope of work, the necessary skills and qualifications for entry-level positions, and the best way to get a foot in the door. This guy taught me that confidence is very important, to ask smart questions, and to be strategic with the 5 minutes you get with each exhibitor.
- Speak loudly. There is likely to be at least 100 people crowded into an exhibition hall. Don’t make the recruiter lean in or ask you constantly to repeat yourself. I wouldn’t be surprised if some recruiters don’t even make an effort but will just nod and smile.
- Do your research. Don’t go up to a recruiter and say, “So what does your organization do?” As a job seeker, it is your job to know who you’re approaching. Have an opening line ready before you jump into your elevator pitch, and the line should relate to the organization. Examples: “I saw on your website that you have a project in Colombia. I got my Master’s degree in international development last year at ABC University. In the summer of 2012, I worked in Colombia with XYZ organization…”
- Because I can’t repeat this enough: Do your research. Don’t go up to a recruiter and ask, “What job openings do you have?” Many, if not all, organizations publish their current vacancies on their websites. Yes, some exhibitors will have printouts at their tables, but how do you know which questions to ask if you didn’t take the time to read the job descriptions in advance?
- Don’t hand out your resume like a flyer. A lot of recruiters will not accept them. Those who take resumes will likely end up tossing them at the end of the day. Related to my last bullet, go on the organization’s website and create a job search profile. These sites will let you create a profile and/or upload your resume even if you’re not applying to a current opening.
- Most of the recruiters are at the job fair for hours answering the same countless questions for a countless number of people. Again, ask smart questions so they don’t feel like they’re wasting their time and energy on you. The recruiters are there to keep an eye out for potential job candidates and, trust me, they will remember you if you’re strategic about it.
After reviewing my notes from this afternoon, I would say that I almost conquered the job fair two years ago. I made a lot of common mistakes, but getting the opportunity to be on the other side was a wonderful learning experience; and I hope that these lessons will help others conquer job fairs.