Thanks to a booming economy and a shortage of technology workers, IT trade shows are more important than ever. They are not only a great forum for peddling the latest innovations, they’ve evolved into a prime networking tool for recruiters and job seekers. In this Tech Watch, I’ll discuss how to strategize your next trade-show visit so you can connect with the right people and potentially land a new position.

Seeing the show
Every year, hundreds of trade shows and conferences take place throughout the United States. Typically, they’re staged in major technology centers such as California, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, New York, and, of course, Las Vegas, which has become a trade show mecca. Beyond trade show producers, magazines and giants like Microsoft and Oracle are also biting off a chunk of the profitable business.

Your professional association can supply lots of material on upcoming shows, and trade magazines or Web sites usually advertise events several months in advance.

Besides being a forum for technology buyers and sellers, these events also serve as fertile opportunities for career-builders to plug into technology trends and find jobs. Both passive and active job seekers can profit from the experience, according to Mark Mehler, co-author of CareerXroads, a job, resume, and career-management directory.

Show exhibitors may spend thousands of dollars on a booth (depending upon its size and location), but admission prices for attendees are pretty reasonable, ranging from $50-$100 on average. Some shows even offer free admission to drive up attendance.

If you’re currently employed, your employer will usually pick up the tab. If you’re out of work, many shows will let you in for half-price or even free, says Mehler. If you have to pay travel expenses, look upon the outlay as investment in your career.

Make your time count
Mehler advises that if you’re job hunting at the show, you should use your time there wisely, mapping out your strategy ahead of time instead of randomly walking the aisles. Pour over the show’s schedule prior to the show, and create a prioritized hit list of companies’ booths you’d like to visit.

Many showgoers mistakenly think the folks staffing the booths are only salespeople. But you will also often find IT managers, CTOs, and even CEOs of start-up companies. Although they’re there primarily to sell their wares, they might also be scouting for talent.

When approaching the folks in the targeted booth, Mehler advises not to beat around the bush. Ask a direct question, like “Who is the person in your organization responsible for hiring?” You could either already be speaking to the right person or, if not, be referred to that person. You may be lucky enough to nab a prescreening interview on the spot. If not, get the business card of the person to whom you’re talking, and follow up within at least 10 business days.

As in any interview, dress is a part of the presentation. Business casual will do fine. Suits and ties are unnecessary, but it is still an absolute no-no to show up unshaven and wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Remember, you could very well meet your next employer or the project manager of your next assignment at a trade show. It happens every day.
Did you land a job after visiting a trade show? Do you agree with Bob Weinstein’s assessment of their value? Post a comment in the discussion.