How career fairs can get you hired

Hiring Our Heroes DC job fair at Nationals Park. Larry French/AP Images for National Chamber Foundation)

by 1vet2another

Finding a career isn’t easy.  It can be extremely difficult and frustrating trying to find an employer willing to give you a shot.  The online application process is seemingly useless at times.  You spend countless hours making sure you application is perfect, only to be given a kindly worded rejection from an automated system.  Often, your application doesn’t even get to the eyes of a “human recruiter” since it is filtered out among the masses for not having the right key words.  Career fairs give you the opportunity to speak with those “human recruiters” directly.  It is an amazing opportunity.  It is also drastically under appreciated by many transitioning veterans.  Whether you are in school or not, a career fair should be considered interview #1 with the attending employers.

I have attended numerous career fairs since leaving service.  I have also been on both sides of the booth, which is why I know the perspective of the hopeful candidate and the employer looking for the right candidate.  I noticed something while attending my first veteran career fair.  There were too many veterans that didn’t understand career fair etiquette.  Compared to some of the fairs I attended with highly prepared and trained students, the veterans I saw didn’t have the same knowledge.  I hope to pass on this knowledge so vets can take advantage of career fairs.

The people standing behind the booth are usually one of two backgrounds, company recruiters or someone that works for a team/department that is looking to hire.  Very often, the manager for that hiring department is standing behind the booth.  This is the same person that would be interviewing you later on.  Remember, treat this career fair as your first interview with the company.  The incredible opportunity to be face to face with someone interested in candidates is not to be taken lightly.  If you are serious about getting a job, then you need to take these career fairs seriously.  This interview starts the moment you walk in the door.

My first career fair was at Western Illinois University. I decided to stop by since I had some time to spare.  I was under the impression that these events were more about information sharing.  Without looking into the attending employers, I put on my name tag and walked in.  As a young veteran, I was confident with my military background.  In my mind, there was no position that I couldn’t succeed in.  I assumed the employers would realize and appreciate my military background and the value I could bring to their company.   Not only did I serve in the military, but I was also getting my bachelors degree.   I was sure that all doors would be open.

Remember, you are judged long before you walk up to a table.  I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, along with my backpack from class.  I didn’t have a resume either.  I walked around talking to various booths without any kind of plan.  As I approached for a conversation, I usually just asked about what they did, who they were, etc..  In the end, I walked away with some cool swag, business cards, and no advancement in the pursuit of a career.

I started to notice that my career fair strategy needed to change.  I watched the other students and took note of how they dressed and interacted.  The experienced ones stood out from the rest.  I talked to professors and asked for their opinion on how to interact with a perspective employer and what questions to ask.  Finally, I did my homework by researching suggestions on the internet.

What to do prior

1. Know the date and location of all career fairs that you can attend.  In college, I would keep a close eye on the school event calendar to look for opportunities.  Schools will have multiple career fairs throughout the year, just make sure the employers that are attending match your career aspirations (or just go for some good practice).  For those not in school, I would recommend registering at VeteranRecruiting.com and RecruitMilitary.com.  Veteran Recruiting will host numerous virtual career fairs, which means you don’t have to travel far and wide to attend.  Recruit Military has a packed schedule of career fairs they host throughout the country.  I have attended one of these and was impressed with the amount of employers that attended in the Chicago area.

2. Research the employers that are attending.  Lookup the full list on the career fair website.  If you have specific companies or industries in mind, this will let you know if they are attending.   More importantly, knowing the companies ahead of time will allow you to create  a plan.  Prioritize your top 5 companies (depending on time, you may not get a chance to talk to more).  Go to their company website and find the open positions that you are interested in.  Go to their “About Us” page and learn about their product/service, history, locations, etc.  Go to websites like Glassdoor.com and Salary.com to find out what current/past employees are saying about the company, both good and bad comments.  Find out if they were ever listed on one of the top 100 or 25 best  places to work articles.

Once you have this information, create a few questions for each company to ask at the career fair.  Some will overlap, like “What is the culture like at your company?” or “What do you like most about working for your company?”.   You should also have some specific questions regarding the open positions they currently have.  While having this questions ready is important, don’t feel the need to ask everything.  See where the conversation goes.  This should be a natural conversation.  Having the information about each company will allow you to have an educated conversation with the employer. You might even bring up interesting facts that intrigued you about the company.  Having this information will allow you to look prepared and confident in the eyes of the employer.  It will prevent you from going up and asking, in my opinion, a terrible question…”Hi, what does this company do?”.

3. Dress for success and polish the resume.  This is obvious.  Dress like you are going into an interview, because you are.  Sure, most companies don’t require employees to wear formal attire at work.  My standard outfit is often a polo with dress pants and jeans on Friday.  For interviews, formal attire (suits, ties, etc.) is standard for interviewees.  In military terms, you don’t rate casual attire until you are hired.

Once you have some nice clothes prepared, polish the resume.  I am not going to get into resume specifics here because that is a topic of its own. You should have a well thought out, professional resume printed and ready to hand out.  Ensure your resume is completely up to date and well vetted by trusted sources, like professors, mentors, or even family/friends.  Your resume should be brief.  The employer at the booth will only spend a few seconds looking at it.  It should be no more than 2 pages and easy to read/scan (limit bullet points to 5 or less for each experience).  You want to make sure your top attributes/experiences stand out.  If you are in school, your GPA (hopefully above a 3.0) should be clearly stated, they will be looking for it.  Some employers at the booth ask for resumes, some don’t, but don’t be in a situation where you have nothing to give.  Print out more than enough, 10 plus, to hand out.  While you are at it, don’t place them in a backpack or hold them in your hand.  Remember, this is a professional interview. Find a nice folder or business portfolio to hold it in (this is really the only thing you should be carrying).   I have experienced candidates who shuffle around their backpack only to pull out a crumpled resume, not good.

What to do during

1. Go alone, walk confidently.  This shouldn’t be a problem for veterans, but it is worth mentioning.  If you are going to the career fair with a friend, split at the entrance.  I have heard managers compare potential candidates and talk poorly about those who stayed in groups.   Personally, I can see where you question the confidence and professionalism of candidates that go up to a booth as a group.  You wouldn’t go into an interview with a friend, so you shouldn’t do it at a career fair either.  It might sound like a small thing, but when the employer has only seconds to look for potential, this could be a reason you don’t land an interview.

Being confident is great for veterans, because we typically have loads of it.  Utilize that as soon as you walk in.  Being prepared and having your plan ahead of time will also help.  With large crowds and numerous booths, these fairs can seem intimidating to those without confidence in themselves and poor planning.  You won’t be the candidate that looks like a lost puppy in the middle of the fair.  Find your top companies and commit to engaging in a conversation.  Depending on the crowd and lines at each table, you may have to adapt your original plan of which booth to engage first.  Don’t get sidetracked and waste time on booth’s that aren’t in your top 5 (only if there is time after).  Once you have an opening, make eye contact, go for the handshake, introduce yourself, and start the conversation.

2. Elevator speech is key.  In my opinion, the trick with the elevator speech is to be brief and sound natural.  Being a veteran, you will want to highlight this sought after experience.  This is another topic that requires more detail (future blog topic).  It comes down to this…if you have 30 seconds in an elevator with a recruiter, what would you say?  This will require practice in order to sound natural instead of scripted.  It will cover who you are, what you’ve done, and what you are looking for.  This is difficult since you will want to list all of the great things you have done.  But you don’t want to state everything on your resume, there is not enough time to talk about all your accomplishments.

Be extremely brief about any experiences/titles that were 2 years or more in the past.  Spend more time on current accomplishments and experiences.  Let the natural conversation go from there (don’t forget to let them speak and smile, you aren’t a robot).  Right after I left the military, I had no experience in the corporate environment.  For my elevator speech, I spent the majority of my time talking about accomplishments in the Marines, even adding in relevant  leadership experiences with the Student Veterans group at Western Illinois University.  As with everything, this takes practice with family, friends and other trusted resources.  The more you know your content ahead of time, the more confident you will be.  With that confidence, you will have the ability to be flexible,  flowing with the conversation instead of staying on script.

3. Open communication with that employer for the future.  Get a business card and set up some additional time to talk in the future.   The person you just talked to is likely your greatest connection within the company, take advantage of it while they still remember you. They are able to place your face and great personality to your resume now, which is a huge benefit.  Often your ability to communicate and hold a conversation will hold more weight than the accomplishments on your resume.   If you impress these employers enough, they will sometimes perform on-site interviews immediately following the event.

What to do after

1. Create an applicant profile on the company website and search for positions that you’re interested in and qualified for.  Message the recruiters from the career fair (Email or LinkedIn) and let them know you are interested in specific open positions and have some follow-up questions.  They might even act as a referral for you or put your resume directly in front of the hiring manager.

2. Look for more career fairs, continue the grind.  There is no guarantee that you will land an interview after your first career fair (or after a few for that matter).  I was able to interview with great companies because of the practice I put into these events.  There were also plenty of unsuccessful attempts along the way.  At the very least, you will learn about other companies and improve your interviewing/networking skills (including more confidence).  There is no better place to practice than this, since you can talk to so many different industry representatives in one room.  The name of this game is patience.  If you don’t get a call back or Email, ask yourself why.  Is there something you can do to improve your chances next time?  Was the job a poor fit?  Did I present myself professionally?  Keep finding career fairs to attend in the future. Master the process and capitalize on this fantastic opportunity.

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