If you think job fairs are designed only for graduating seniors trying to lock in a hot job, you’re dead wrong. They’re for all techies, and you’d be foolish not to take advantage of them.

While job fairs have been around a long time, the new wrinkle is that there are more of them, and companies now view them as a serious recruiting strategy. Firms are spending mega-sums sending HR types and managers to these events.

Job fairs can be an incredible avenue for latching onto a great job, said Ken Gaffey, a staffing specialist and president of Boston, MA-based KT Gaffey Consulting.

A specialist in technology and financial services, Gaffey says he has found every type of candidate at job fairs, even those for senior-level engineering management openings.

Face-to-face, not interface
It’s hard to beat the Internet for researching companies and checking out jobs, but it still doesn’t give you a true sense of what companies are really about, observes Edward J. Doran, national accounts manager of MRD Group, an executive search firm based in Hillsboro, OR that specializes in IT (Information Technology).

“Job fairs are an opportunity to put a face on a company by talking to the people who work there,” Doran said. “Job fairs are especially valuable if you’re considering switching to a different industry or swerving onto a new job track.”

Even if you’re happily employed, job fairs are a great way to check out the market, according to Gaffey. “It’s an opportunity to test-drive your market value, plug into new trends, and find out what skills companies are looking for,” he said.

From the company’s perspective, “job fairs are an opportunity to make an unapproachable company approachable,” Gaffey said. “It’s an effective way to deliver a recruiting message in a friendly environment.”

Companies also exploit job fairs to unearth what Gaffey calls the “mythical passive candidates.” “They’re potentially ideal candidates because they’re employed and have marketable skills, but they don’t need a job,” he said.

Once companies find an attractive passive job-seeker, they’re ready to pounce with heavy artillery, which means interviews by HR people and technical managers. “Often superstar candidates are hired on the spot,” Gaffey said. “All companies work differently. Some have HR and technical people at the fair; others keep an interview team on standby at a nearby hotel to interview hot prospects.”

Be prepared; be selective
It’s to your advantage to take job fairs seriously. Just as companies come to job fairs with a recruiting agenda in terms of the types of bodies they need, you ought to have a strategy when you attend these events.

A major faux pas made by attendees is trying to hit every booth. “It’s impossible because there are so many companies,” Gaffey said. “You wind up hitting the first 20 booths and missing out on 60 others that could have interested you.”

Before you start working the floor, invest time studying the show’s brochure to figure out which companies you want to visit. Create a priority list just in case you can’t get to all of them.

Approach a booth as you would a job interview. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie, but you ought to be groomed and dressed professionally. Jeans, sneakers and T-shirts are a no-no.

Introduce yourself and have a resume in hand as soon as you walk up to the booth.

“Just as with job interviews, first impressions count,” Gaffey said. “Put yourself in the recruiters’ place.”

After speaking to hundreds of candidates, booth workers’ nerves may be a little frayed. Be prepared with a professional greeting, tell a little about your background (i.e., job title and company, if employed). And, don’t be flippant or familiar.

Finally, Gaffey suggests job hunters go solo. “Don’t work a job fair with a friend because it will work against you,” he said. “The other person is a distraction, and most recruiters prefer to deal with one person at a time.”

If you get a job offer, Gaffey warns against taking it without first visiting the company. Just as companies parcel out conditional job offers, you can also give a conditional acceptance. It’s your future. You’re entitled to check out the company first before agreeing to take the job.

Bob Weinstein’s weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. It appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

Did you land your current job at a job fair? Did you know someone at the company where you’re currently working? How did you impress the person who was interviewing you? Give us your advice for landing a job. Post your comments below or send us an e-mail.