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Win big at a job fair

There's no Ferris wheel, but a job fair can be a pile o' fun when you make networking contacts and get job offers. Learn how to have a successful visit.

When you walk into a job fair, you'll see rows and rows of booths, each manned by grinning recruiters eager to hire you. There's no cotton candy, no tattooed carnival barkers, and no flashing lights, so maybe it doesn't sound like a lot of fun at first. But as far as your career is concerned, this could be a four-ticket ride.

Job fairs are useful for both active seekers of employment and those just thinking of job-hunting sometime in the future. Participating companies pay for a spot to provide information on their industry and organizations, as well as their current job openings.

This means that a job fair is a great educational opportunity if you're still pondering that big question of what to do when you grow up. Becky Garrett, event coordinator of the Indiana Collegiate Job Fair, says students often attend these events to figure out what career interests them, so they can pick a major.

Even if you're a card-carrying member of the work force, a job fair can give you a glimpse at what companies are looking for so you can keep your skills up-to-date . . . just in case you find yourself job hunting again.

"They're good for finding out what people are looking for superficially in terms of skills," explains computer programmer and job fair veteran Mark Bridgwater of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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Midway attractions
The No. 1 reason to go to a job fair, of course, is to find a job. That is what they're selling after all, isn't it?

And that's an important concept to remember. The companies are there to sell themselves to you. You are the customer -- so you have a certain amount of power. Sounding better all the time, isn't it?

Generally, if the company pays for a booth, you can be assured they're actively seeking employees. So, in essence, you have the luxury of "shopping" for a job. You can speak to recruiters and ask them questions about the company and about their needs. Once you've gotten some scoop on who they are and what they want, you can then present yourself in an appropriate manner.

Queasy on the Ferris wheel
While companies may be serious about hiring folks from a job fair, they usually send only a representative. Which means you're likely to be dealing with recruiters or human resource representatives, rather than the people doing the hiring, Bridgwater says.

Also, while there may be dozens or even hundreds of companies at the event, there will be many more applicants. This brings up another potential problem with relying on a job fair when you are looking for work: the competition could be fierce.

"Job fairs are about as useful as answering an ad in the classifieds," Bridgwater says. "The theory for the employer is the same: collect as many resumes as possible, and then cherry-pick from that. You have to look really good on paper because that's all that gets passed along to the person who actually makes the decisions.

Into the fun house
Don't be disappointed if you walk out without a job. Just like the county fair, few people walk off with the big prizes. However, you'll probably make appointments for interviews and valuable contacts for future networking. Oh, and you could make out with some free nifty pens and hard candy. Even job hunting comes with consolation prizes.

Before you plan to attend a job fair, be aware that there are different types:

  • A commercial job fair is open to the general public looking for any kind of job. These may be for-profit ventures organized by a company or they may be sponsored by a local government agency that helps people get jobs.

  • Job fairs found on university campuses or sponsored by universities tend to target professional jobs. Some even require you to have a bachelor's degree to attend.

  • You can also find specialty job fairs based on cultural group or profession, such as an NAACP job fair or an engineering job fair.

Some job fairs charge a small entrance fee, around $10. However, university events are often free for students.

If you believe you are ready to take the plunge at a job fair, follow these tips to make it a successful ride:

  • Get a list of participating employers ahead of time. This may be provided in an ad or flier, or you can look online for information on that particular job fair. Learn more about the companies, find which ones have jobs requiring your skills and which ones you would want to work for. This will save you tons of time once you get there. In other words, you wouldn't want to waste time at the basketball-shooting booth when you can make a beeline straight for the kissing booth.
  • Have several copies of your resume on professional-quality paper.
  • Dress like it's an interview. This will be the first impression you make on people who may hire you. Act professionally, and they'll take note. Sometimes, according to Ream, you might even get a mini-interview right there at the booth, so be prepared.
  • Wear comfy shoes. Most job fairs are held in a big place, such as convention centers or an auditorium. You'll be spending lots of time on your feet. Don't make the experience agonizing. Wear something appropriate but comfortable, and you can focus on more important things than your feet.
  • Have a mini-spiel prepared about yourself. "We recommend you prepare a one-minute 'commercial.' Have prepared what you want the employer to know about you," Garrett says. She says if you give them the basic info, such as what degree you hold, a summary of your work experience and career goals, then the recruiter will be able to connect with you and ask more questions.
  • Bring a briefcase or professional-looking bag. You will be collecting business cards and brochures, and you'll need somewhere to stuff them other than your pockets.
  • Carry a notepad, preferably in a professional-looking folder, and pen. You will want to make notes of people you meet and things you learn for future reference. After talking to multitudes of well-coifed, gray-suited recruiters, things are going to start to blur. Take a moment to jot your thoughts down after you find an employer who interests you, so you can follow up. Additionally, depending on how many job seekers there are, a recruiter could run out of business cards, and you'll need to copy down their vital information.

Unless you're one of those lucky folks who found your dream job in the aisles of a job fair, you'll want to do a little follow up work to fully make the event a success. Afterward, figure out which of the employers you'd like to work for, and send a simple thank-you note to the recruiter with some reminder of your conversation that's likely to ring a bell. This little touch could make a difference.

Job fairs are not frequent events, so when one comes to town, it'll be well advertised in the newspaper and perhaps on TV. You can also check with a college career center if they know of any future job fairs in your area. And, of course, there's always the good ol' World Wide Web to find more info.

-- Updated: Dec. 17, 2004

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