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Are You Wasting Your Time With Job Fairs?

Large-scale career events, such as job fairs, can look very attractive to the frustrated job seeker. The obvious appeal of job fairs is that they offer an opportunity to walk into a central venue and get actual face time with representatives from dozens of potential employers, and all in a single day.

Many job seekers, however, have a very negative view of job fairs, and often that view comes directly from unpleasant experiences. The events also seem to be losing favor among recruiters as a means of attracting qualified applicants. Should job fairs be an integral part of your job search strategy, or is attending these events a waste of precious job hunting time that could be more productively spent?

What's so bad about job fairs?

In down economic times especially, job fairs can be overcrowded mob scenes. Many of these events attract thousands of hopeful candidates who are often competing for only a handful of open positions. Sometimes the events breach capacity and job seekers are simply turned away before ever having the chance to meet prospective employers.

If they get inside, job seekers often find that the only available jobs are entry-level, low-wage, or commission-only sales jobs. And many participants aren't really employers at all, but organizations such as the U.S. Army National Guard seeking recruits, or career schools seeking students, or presenters of business opportunities looking for, well, suckers.

Even many of the legitimate employers and recruiters attending may not be immediately filling open positions, but may be there instead primarily for promotional or public image purposes, branding opportunities, or to stockpile resumes for future openings.

There are also cases of outright broken promises bordering on fraud, such as the company that recently promised jobs to hundreds of people attending an Atlanta Workforce Development Agency job fair. Before anyone began work, the company reneged on its offers, citing a hiring freeze. All of this after the city spent over $10,000 in federal funding to screen the prospective employees.

Are job fairs effective?

Perhaps the biggest knock against job fairs is that they simply are not a very effective route to getting hired. In the ninth annual Source of Hire Study released by recruiting consultancy CareerXroads, career fairs and open houses are revealed to account for only about 2.3% of surveyed employers' external hires.

Job seekers would seem to view job fairs more optimistically than employers as a source for finding work. According to Monster's Fall 2009 Atlanta Local Market Report, 28% of job seekers in the region report job fairs as a "useful resource" for finding employment, yet only 15% of recruiters in the region indicate that they will use job fairs as a recruiting tactic.

A survey by outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that human resources executives ranked job fairs as the least effective job-search method, scoring an average rating of 1.6 on a scale of 1 to 5.

"Job fairs are particularly ineffective in recessions. They are heavily attended by job seekers and lightly attended by employers. Many of the employers that do attend are seeking very low-level workers, volunteers or unpaid sales representatives/franchisees who would have to be prodigious sellers to make a living wage," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"And, while job seekers do get to interact with a representative of the company at the job fair, it hardly qualifies as networking. The employer representative is rarely a decision maker and is simply there to administer and collect applications."

Are there any reasons to attend a job fair?

Even though they are widely regarded as one of the least effective methods of securing gainful employment, and even though they are rife with negatives, job fairs may not be a complete waste of your time. As long as you don't expect too much (like, say, an actual job offer), job fairs can provide some valuable opportunities.

After weeks of working the computer and phone with no resulting interviews, donning business attire and attending a job fair can give you the feeling of being proactive; of reaching out and making real human contact.

You will at least have the chance to meet some recruiters and employers, some of whom may steer you in the right direction or provide useful information. If nothing else, you'll gain valuable experience presenting yourself to recruiters and employers, ever honing your self-marketing skills.

Another often overlooked opportunity is the chance to network with other job seekers. Most of them are in the same boat as you, and may be able to tip you off to some solid leads. If you view the other attendees as contacts rather than competitiors, you might be surprised what you learn.

You'll probably get the most from a job fair if you expect the least. If you come away with an offer, you've beaten the odds. If you at least get out and circulate, practice selling yourself, gather some information, and make a few contacts, you can consider the event a success.