Image: Job fair
Robyn Beck  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Job seekers collect information about work opportunities at a job fair in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 8. Police had to turn away potential attendees as the actual turnout was four times the number expected.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/27/2009 11:04:36 AM ET 2009-04-27T15:04:36

After leaving a job fair recently at a hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., A. Ahmed and two of her unemployed friends headed to a Starbucks to discuss how futile the experience was.

“There wasn’t much recruiting going on. They wouldn’t even accept resumes,” says Ahmed, who’s been looking for work since March when she was laid off from a nonprofit. She didn’t want her first name used for fear of impacting her job search.

It was her second job fair since she was laid off. Her conclusion: “They aren’t that useful. I got brochures and information on the company. I could have gotten that from their Web site.”

Job fairs and job-networking events — such as “pink slip” parties geared toward mid-career types — are becoming a familiar scene across the country, with events sponsored by chambers of commerce and local charities to large corporations such as Monster and Careerbuilder.

Long lines of the unemployed waiting to attend these functions is becoming a familiar sight on the nightly news, but the big question is: Do job fairs really help you find a job?

A lesson in futility
There are no hard statistics on how often a trip to an organized job-hunting soiree leads to employment. But some job seekers say they can be a lesson in futility during these tough times because many gatherings are overcrowded, so applicants get lost in the shuffle.

And many employers have few or no jobs to offer, using such fairs as more of a promotional tool or for community goodwill. For those positions that are open, they often don’t match a job applicant’s background or desire.

Christopher Morin, a 38-year-old brand manager who was laid off in January from travel company Tauck World Discovery, recently attended a pink slip party in Fairfield County, Conn., and left in frustration.

“It was somewhat of a disaster, being overcrowded and you couldn't find the recruiters [or] companies, then when you found someone you stood in line for 20-plus minutes to introduce yourself, only to find out that the person you waited to meet is from a nursing home and is looking for aides,” he recalls.

Many of these recruitment events are based on good intentions. Monster.com is touting its national career fair tour, launched in February, as its “mission to help rebuild the American workforce.” To date they’ve hit 19 cities, included more than 475 employers and attracted more than 15,000 job seekers.

The companies have thousands of jobs to fill, according to Monster.com spokeswoman Nikki Richardson. But she could only point to two confirmed jobs that have come out of the fairs since the program started.

But “employers have no obligation to report back to us about how many people they hire from the fairs,” she stresses, only how many open jobs they bring. “They have brought 6,400 jobs so far.”

The hiring process takes a while, and she’s sure many more stories of employment will come out of the company’s initiative. “I am holding communications from several companies that say they each expect to hire several more, but have not spoken to them to confirm.”

Don’t expect too much
Human resource managers were reluctant to speak on the record about job fairs, but one recruiter for a major Virginia company says it’s not all about finding the perfect person to fill the job on the spot. Sometimes, she explains, employers attend job fairs so they can get information on potential applicants to keep in the pipeline, just in case, or if they have a high-turnover rate.

As for not accepting resumes at fairs, she says there can be a host of reasons for that.

  • An application submitted online can be searched in the database more easily.
  • Fewer errors are introduced when an application is submitted online, compared with a human resources manager scanning in an application.
  • A government contractor might want to receive applications in a consistent manner so they can be tracked.

Despite the question mark over the effectiveness of such meetings, Nancy Keene, director for executive search consultancy Stanton Chase, believes if job seekers have the time, they shouldn’t rule out these events.

“You never know where the opportunity is going to be,” she says. “But it’s not high probability because you could be one of thousands submitting resumes for a single position — without the ability to customize your content for a specific position.”

The bottom line is, don’t expect too much from these mass recruiting events. Instead, view them as an opportunity to network and research employers.

Other ways to land jobs
Once upon a time, job fairs were a great recruitment tool for job seekers and employers, says Jay Meschke, president of recruitment firm EFL Associates.

In today's economic climate?

“Job fairs may or may not be a quality use of time,” he says.

Some employers may attend job fairs because they committed to do so before the economic downturn or to maintain a good public image, Meschke says.

“Many job seekers are attending job fairs because it appears to be an action step on the road to a new job,” he says. “Without performing the necessary research to determine the details of the fair, attendance may ultimately only provide the seeker a false, psychological sense of accomplishment rather than a new position. The wise job seeker extensively researches the dynamics of the career fair.”

You need to do your due diligence, he says. Find out who’s attending the fair, whether those employers are really looking to fill positions and what type of jobs they are looking to fill.

Many of the hiring managers Ahmed met at the fair in Washington asked her to apply for a job via company Web sites, but they couldn’t even provide a list of job openings. She figured she could have done as much from home without wasting time schlepping to the event.

“One person said they’d e-mail me, but they never did,” she says.

She is now concentrating on networking to find a job in research or marketing, and already she’s gotten a solid lead on a job through a former employer she contacted recently.

As for job fairs?

“You can go ahead and go, but don’t expect much value out of them,” she says. “The best advice is to hustle on your own.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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