Job fairs rebuttal: The ten 'real' truths

Opinions differ on the value of job fairs for tech job seekers. One author takes issue with another's myths and truths about how these meat markets fit in to the hunt for employment.

Job fairs are portrayed as one of the magic cures for job hunters, but they're actually nothing but a distraction that sucks up people's energy. On the surface, Terryn Barill's recent column seems to illuminate the myths surrounding job fairs. Off the bat, I agree with Barill completely: Job fairs are meat markets.

However, she makes some dangerous assumptions that could kill your chance of getting a good job with the right company. Job fairs by themselves aren't going to ruin your career. But they will distract you from focusing on smart job hunting that will land you the right job.

I'm afraid her truths are just more myths. The first is the biggest one.

The first of two parts
The first five myths will be discussed in this article. The remainder will be discussed in a follow-up installment next week.

Myth: Job fairs allow you to meet a glut of hiring employers
Myth: "For the corporate recruiter, job fairs offer an opportunity to reach interviewing terminal velocity—the highest possible number of prospects in the shortest possible amount of time. For applicants, job fairs provide an opportunity to meet a large number of hiring employers."

Truth: This is where the trouble starts, with the assumption that meeting lots of people and companies is a good thing. I agree that the experience is terminal, because while you may be meat when you enter the fair, you could wind up dead meat by the time you leave.

Consider where job fairs fall out in the hierarchy of recruiting. Studies show that managers think personal referrals are the best source of good hires (e.g., "Still Hiring—But Wanting the Human Touch," by Tom Pohlmann, Forrester Research, 2002). Somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts—not through ads, resumes, or job postings. While companies hire relatively few people through headhunters, they spend more per head when they use headhunters than any other source of hires. Why? Because headhunters are the ultimate personal contact. They have lots of very high-quality industry contacts, and that's what justifies their high fees. At the other end of the spectrum we have want ads and job fairs, which deliver daunting numbers of contacts inexpensively—but they're low-quality contacts.

Suggestion: Think twice when you consider the conventional wisdom about job fairs. A good network of contacts is based on strong relationships, not on ephemeral contacts with lots of people you don't really know. The people you will meet at a job fair are not likely to help you land a good job. In fact, one quick, superficial contact made at a job fair can cost you a good job. I'll talk about that more in a minute.

Myth: You can cover a job fair with 300 employers in one day
Myth: "You can feasibly cover a job fair with 300 employers in one day. You can't cover one with 3,000 employers, so do your homework."

Truth: Think about that. You're really going to cover 300 employers in one day? Even if you slice it down to 100, a six-hour job fair will allow you 3.6 minutes for each employer. (Not to mention, if you spend anywhere near six hours at a job fair you will get dizzy and pass out.) Trust your common sense: That's not enough time for a meaningful exchange.

Suggestion: Visit the companies' Web sites instead. You can submit your resume there much more easily, save your shoe leather, and save your sanity. You will learn lots more on those Web sites than you will trolling booths at a fair, and you will develop sound reasons for deciding whether a company is right to pursue. Your investigations should lead you to one-on-one conversations with people affiliated with your target companies and long, comfortable conversations with peers—not meaningless key word chats with recruitment-booth rats.

Myth: Job fairs offer a chance to "shine"
Myth: "Job fairs are not 'get acquainted sessions.' They are multiple interview sessions where candidates are sized up quickly. You are being evaluated—it is your chance to shine'"

Truth: Though Barill's message is well intentioned, it's patently impossible to be sized up quickly, get evaluated, and have a chance to "shine." First, as she points out elsewhere in her article, the company people you will meet are not likely to be hiring managers. (Even if they were, they'd have no time to learn much about you. That's probably why they don't waste their time at job fairs.) You're meeting greenhorn HR clerks who don't know what "shine" is.

Suggestion: Avoid formal encounters where you will be sized up quickly. These include submitting your resume to an ad and getting screened on the phone. Note that all of these encounters likely involve personnel clerks. Seek out opportunities to meet casually with a manager before you subject yourself to a cursory review by a clerk. For example, get a friend to invite you to visit him at his office. Have lunch in the cafeteria where you can meet the boss casually. Talk shop. Exchange insights on the work you all do. That's how to get sized up accurately.

Myth: The most you can hope for is another interview
Myth: "While some companies make offers at job fairs, it is much more likely that the most you can hope for is another interview."

Truth: Any time someone talks about "hope" in the context of job hunting, what he or she is really talking about is loss of control over the process. At a job fair, the job hunter has zero control. You wander from booth to booth, hoping to out-shine thousands of other sides of beef and impress low-level company representatives who have no power to hire you. The most you can hope for at a job fair is not to get blackballed.

Earlier I said that job fairs can cost you good jobs. Actually, it's superficial contacts that can cost you a job. While the resume-collectors at job fairs aren't qualified to really evaluate you, they are empowered to put a big fat X on your resume, which then goes into the HR department's database. If you come along months later as a result of a good personal contact inside the company, HR could use that X to prevent you from interviewing further. That's the kind of rejection power many HR departments have.

Suggestion: You are better off not alerting HR clerks to your interest in their company. Almost everyone knows it's a far better thing to go directly to a hiring manager, but almost everyone ignores that wisdom because it's just easier to go to HR. HR is the big candidate clearinghouse. If a manager rejects you, you are still free to approach other managers. If HR blackballs you at a job fair, your X-marked resume can keep you blackballed throughout the company.

Myth: Job fairs are a great place to find unadvertised openings
Myth: "Job fairs are excellent places to network and exchange information regarding where openings are and aren't."

Truth: Any job openings advertised at job fairs are already old news. Job fairs are often a company's last recruitment resort. While a personnel jockey is scanning your resume at the job fair booth, my candidate (or some other headhunter's) is sitting in the hiring manager's office demonstrating how she's going to do the job profitably for the manager. That's who you're competing with.

As for networking, consider the value of networking with lowly personnel clerks and other job hunters. How likely is another fair attendee to cue you in to a really good job, when he's looking for the same thing? Think before you invest your time just because everyone else is doing it.

Suggestion: Skip the places where HR clerks hang out, and go where the hiring managers and their employees go: professional conferences, trade shows, and training courses. Yes, bring a resume, but first make some friends. Don't ask for a job; ask for the gold ring that smart headhunters grab: insight about the person's company and work. That's what leads to real relationships, real personal contacts, and valuable personal referrals to hiring managers.

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