NACE Journal, August 2016
How many times have you heard that: a) career fairs are dead; b) career fairs are dying; c) career fairs have outlived their purpose; and/or d) students hate career fairs?
A quick Google search will yield ample opinion pieces on any and all of these variations on a theme—but, in my survey work with students at universities nationwide, I’ve heard quite the opposite views expressed from their perspective.
The key consideration, however, is that students’ expectations of career fairs have evolved over the past few years—and they value these events only if the conditions outlined here are met. Let me explain.
The Way We Were…
If we were able to dial back the calendar by a decade or so, we’d find a very different career fair landscape. While most of the physical trappings would look familiar—the 8 x 10 booths draped in company signage, tables laden with giveaways, and representatives wearing matching company shirts—there would be a couple of seemingly insignificant telltale signs that the career fair world has indeed changed.
We’d notice stacks of paper brochures—even annual reports!—and, for the more technologically advanced employers, DVDs loaded with marketing materials for students to (presumably) review after the fair. Here’s a palpable way that the Internet has fundamentally changed a traditional event and, with it, the needs and expectations of a generation of job seekers who now value personal interaction rather than handouts, and seek opportunities to differentiate themselves in a sea of their peers long before their senior year. Here are a few observations, rooted in my ongoing campus-based research work, that address not only the current state of career fairs, but also what students themselves consistently express as their frustrations with the events, along with some ideas for changing things up.
Students’ Career Fair Expectations Then and Now
As referenced above, I’ve conducted surveys and focus groups with students at universities nationwide since the 1990s, and have gathered some fascinating longitudinal data about recruitment expectations over that time horizon. Effective career fair practices have indeed been of considerable interest to employers over the years, and this interesting data point surfaced in comparing students’ primary expectations for attending the events: In 2010, the top-ranked reason students valued career fairs was “to learn about positions that match my job interests.” In 2014, in a similar force-rank question, this had dropped to third in importance. In its place? To “learn about companies in which I already have an interest” came in first, followed by “meet with employers’ representatives.”
What we can infer from this shift is that students have determined which positions match their interests before the career fair, and expect to learn more in talking—and networking—with employers’ representatives at the event.
In the “old days” prior to the ubiquity of online research resources, it was a reasonable assumption that students would attend career fairs with the intention of gathering detailed information about employers of interest, and to explore opportunities at other companies that attracted their attention. Career fairs were designed to push information at students, who were typically close to graduating.
Fast-forward to 2016, and my research finds that not only have the demographics of career fair attendees trended younger, but what students value is the opportunity to interact in a meaningful way with company representatives, not only to have an “authentic conversation” about the employer, but also to learn “something I don’t know”—which precludes the information they’ve accessed online. And herein lies one of the key dissatisfiers for students who attend career fairs these days, as detailed below.
Career Fair Toxic Practice: “GTW”
Over the past decade or so, I have heard one complaint from students so often and with such consistency that I have assigned it an acronym: “GTW” (“go to the website”) is as commonplace a refrain as it is frustrating to students who wonder why employers even bother to send representatives to career fairs if they are either unable or unwilling to engage with them, and to answer their questions.
This is not in reference to the online application process point requirement, I hasten to add, but rather to what is perceived to be a rude “blow-off” that implies a complete lack of interest in the student—and is a world-class brand-killer, according to those who have been on the receiving end of the practice.
On a related point, the most valued career fair giveaway is a business card—a “real” one with a representative’s actual contact information, and not a generic firstname.lastname@example.org card. As a reciprocal gesture, students believe that if they’re able to give a representative their physical resume (or have it scanned via mobile device), they’ve differentiated themselves from the countless others who have applied online; they perceive this as a tangible benefit to attending career fairs.
There is a pervasive belief that, lacking this personal connection, such events have indeed become useless, to wit the University of Texas focus group participant who observed “If they don’t take my resume, how will they remember me? It’s a waste of my time.”
Career Fair Essentials
In addition to engaging with students in an authentic and enthusiastic manner at career fairs, there are a few key elements that surface on a consistent basis during discussions with students about effective career fair practices:
- Employers need to send a sufficient number of representatives to staff the booth; the prospect of waiting in a 20-minute (or longer!) line discourages most students, despite their level of interest.
- Representatives need to be well-informed about the specific opportunities for which the entire organization is recruiting or be able to refer students to someone who is.
- Representatives must be willing to engage with all students—including those in their first year—who now attend career fairs much earlier in their academic studies, not only to learn about potential internship and co-op opportunities, but to begin building their network of employer representatives and, for many, to gain insight into course recommendations.
- Representatives should provide information about key dates for upcoming events at the school, e.g. presentations and interviews; this reinforces the company’s commitment to targeting the school’s talent through an ongoing presence. Because this information is university-specific, most employers do not include it on their website, although when it is provided, this is a valued practice.
- The organization must have a transparent process for applying for positions, which means that further information about the opportunities described at the career fair—and the ability to actually apply for them—must be easy to locate on the employer’s (and/or the career center’s) website.
Students’ Views on Career Fair Alternatives
Prior to the current renewed interest in hiring campus talent, surveyed students expressed surprise that many employers were experimenting with not attending their career fair, apparently acting on the belief that such events were no longer valued. During focus group discussions on this development, it was apparent to me that the conclusion students drew from this attendance drawback was that the employers that weren’t on campus didn’t have jobs to offer. And whereas a handful of very high-demand employers, e.g., SpaceX, Bain, and Goldman Sachs, can “get away with” taking a pass on campus career fairs, the conventional wisdom among students was best reflected in this comment: “If they don’t come to our career fair, they don’t care about hiring Cornell students.”
On a related development, participating in a virtual career fair has not been as enthusiastically embraced by students as many assumed would be the case, given assumptions about the preference for all things Internet. The overarching sentiment among focus group discussion observations about the undesirable nature of virtual events maps to why physical career fairs remain a valued venue: Simply stated, students recognize that they will not have an opportunity to engage on a personal level with employers’ representatives when the connection is online, rather than face-to-face. As a UC - Berkeley student commented, “You miss out on the interaction, and could find the information online.”
Value of the Fair Is in the Personal Connection
Students still value attending career fairs, as my research with them continues to document, but with a different set of expectations and a strong sense for what makes the event worthwhile for them, as compared with their not-too-distant counterparts.
What is abundantly clear to me is that the “career fairs are dead/dying” drumbeat is rooted in a set of assumptions about students’ preferences (perhaps supported by wishful thinking on the part of some employers...and I say this as a former recruiter!) that don’t adequately reflect the way today’s students differentiate among potential employers, and how they learn about their opportunities and culture.
What I find intriguing is that the more we introduce technology into the recruitment toolkit, the more value students place on the type of face-to-face interactions that occur at career fairs—assuming the conditions described here are addressed. In the words of a BYU student, summing up the impact of her engagement with a company representative at their career fair, “[She] really got me excited to apply to [the company’s] internship program. I made an immediate connection with the recruiter, and I could already visualize myself working there just from talking with her.”
Career fairs are NOT dead. Just ask students!