Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Job Fairs May Suck -- But You Can Use Them to Your Advantage

On college campuses around the country, job fairs are popping up like groundhogs looking for a place to wait out the winter.

Companies load up their banners and swag (A free pen! A free stress reduction ball!) and stake out a table. Then, the college students -- wearing nice clothes that make them squirm -- start the trek from table to table to table, ready to hand out their resumes.

The only problem is that sometimes recruiters shake them off. "No," they say. "We don't need your resume. Just apply online."

There are various reasons for this (lazy recruiters, company policy, etc.) but the bottom line is that it throws off the student. Now what are they supposed to do?

Confused, they shuffle off to the next table to be told something similar. Recruiters seem more interested in taking selfies of themselves at their booths, then posting it online. "Wow! Meeting great people at the XYZ job fair! Come by and see us and get free M&Ms!" they tweet.

And this, my friends, is why so many people hate job fairs. Millennials see them as a colossal waste of time, and they're right.

Sort of.

I agree that you're probably not going to make any great contacts at a job fair, and probably not going to get a job just by going to a job fair. Job fairs are indeed outdated and need to be revamped.

In the meantime, you've got to use every opportunity to get yourself ready for a job interview or networking event that will really help you get a job. So, why not use these job fairs as your own personal testing ground?

Here's what you do:

  • Dress professionally. Of course you know not to wear your grubby shorts and t-shirt, but until you've really moved around in a suit or heels or stiff leather shoes, you're not going to really experience how clothes play an important part in getting a job. Do you feel so uncomfortable that you can't hold a conversation? Is your suit jacket so big -- or so small -- that you feel ridiculous? Are your shoes killing you? This is the time to test drive your interview clothes. You want something that looks as good at the end of the day as it does in the beginning. You want to feel confident in these clothes, and not worry about how your shirt is beginning to wrinkle and show sweat stains.
  • Practice your handshake. A professional handshake isn't one where you do some weird slap, pump, high five or other gesture developed with your fraternity brothers. You want to shake hands professionally -- and do it a lot. Get a feel for what feels too tight or too aggressive or too wimpy. Be willing to stick your hand out first. Learn how to make eye contact with a solid handshake. By the time you leave the job fair, shaking hands should be natural.
  • Learn to juggle. This may not sound like a big deal, but it can be hard to handle your coat, your backpack, your resume, various company swag and a pen and paper without looking like a kindergartner on your first day of school. Part of being seen as a good fit for a company is presenting yourself as a calm, capable person. So, how are you going to handle all this stuff and still take some notes from recruiters? By the time you leave, determine what you need at a job interview or networking event, then leave the rest at home. You want to be focused on getting a job, not tripping on your coat falling out of your backpack.
  • Hone your elevator pitch. To me, this is probably the most important thing you can get out of a job fair. You're probably never going to see most of these recruiters again, so use them as your personal training staff. Once you stick your hand out and get a good, solid handshake, then it's time to give your elevator pitch so the recruiters can get back to tweeting about M&Ms. "Hi, Lisa. It's nice to meet you. I'm Laura, a junior majoring in journalism. I work on the school newspaper, and recently won a state award for my investigation into city worker fraud. I also have developed an online app to make it easier for students to find news that pertains to their home town." BOOM! Right then, you've separated yourself from the rest of the crazed pack of college students roaming the job fair. 
  • Ask questions. Even if you believe that a job fair is mostly a waste of your time, use it to practice asking questions about a company. By doing a bit of research beforehand, look for ways to ask questions that will make an employer think that you're someone who has a real interest in the company and industry. "How to do think AI (artificial intelligence) will affect the way you develop products in the next 10 years?" you might ask.
The bottom line is that while job fairs are an outdated, inefficient and unproductive way for companies to find employees, that doesn't mean you can't use them to your advantage. Use them to become more comfortable with your "professional" self so that when real opportunities come along, you're ready.

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