Job fair, that is.
That’s what I did last Saturday. The first one I’ve ever been to. More about how it turned out below, but first some general observations and thoughts about job fairs and how they fit into the job search landscape.
I think that there are probably three broad categories:
- Job fairs targeted at soon-to-be or recent post-secondary graduates;
- Industry specific job fairs; and
- Single-company job fairs.
The first type can be single-company or multi-company, and are often run on-campus in cooperation with the school’s administration. The second type is a strictly multi-company affair — since I’ve classed single-company job fairs as a separate case.
Now, since I haven’t attended any of the first two types, I can’t speak with authority about them — so take anything I may say about them with an appropriately sized grain of salt.
In any case, I’m far enough past graduation that the first type isn’t applicable to my current job search. I’m sure there were some on campus back when I graduated, but I didn’t attend any — my degree was in aerospace engineering, and I was fortunate in joining The deHavilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd (yes, I know it looks a bit odd, but I assure you that was the company’s name, including the initial “The”; originally a subsidiary of a British aircraft manufacturer, the company was eventually bought from the Canadian government by Boeing and then sold a couple of years later to Bombardier Aerospace) straight out of school as they were recruiting new engineers in the aerodynamics department for the development of the Dash 8 commuter airliner. I still have many good memories of my time there and feel a sense of pride at my contributions to the design every time I see one flying overhead.
As for the second type, my impression is that they are probably useful for bringing together employers seeking very specific skills — typically either in highly technical fields or in skilled trades — and those who have those skills to offer. I suspect that they are more likely to be organized when there is a shortage of the required skills; when there’s a glut, there would be little incentive for a bunch of competing companies to get together to woo prospective employees.
Which leads to the third type, and which was the kind I attended last Saturday. It would seem that a company conducting a job fair to fill a bunch of their job requirements flies in the face of the current conventional wisdom of recruiting, which seems to be: do as much as possible to take the “human” out of “human resources”.
It’s true that the organizing and execution of the job fair took a lot of effort — and cost, I expect — on the company’s part and particularly on the part of the employees who participated (more about which later). Using the internet to recruit candidates, then screening them with software designed to match keywords found in a candidate’s résumé with keywords provided by the hiring manager, would seem to require much less effort — I can’t comment on the cost aspect, since there is obviously some cost associated with the systems and software required to do this and I don’t know how it compares with the cost of running a job fair (although I’m sure the software vendor’s marketing team has a well-cooked set of figures to prove how much money it will save…)
But maybe the reason it requires more effort is that it actually produces better results. Now, I’ve had some feedback from a number of sources that suggest to me this is true. Specifically, I’ll use RIM (Research In Motion, maker of the now ubiquitous BlackBerry) as a sort of “case study” for this — I’ve applied to RIM for a number of positions through their internet recruiting system.
And apparently, I have impressive qualifications, at least according to the canned rejection e-mails I keep getting back. Now don’t take that as sour grapes on my part, there’s more to the story. I do have some inside contacts at RIM: my brother-in-law works there, and so does a friend from university — they have both told me that the recruiting system seems to work against the hiring managers seeing the best candidates.
I’ve had this corroborated by the outplacement consultant I was provided with, who has spoken to a number of RIM’s managers and has heard the same thing from them. There are also lots of stories about people who’ve submitted applications and heard nothing back at all from RIM… until they get a call months, even years, afterwards asking them to come for an interview.
Perhaps RIM is a bit of an anomaly — they’re considered such a desirable place to work that they get a huge volume of applications and perhaps this significantly exacerbates the inherent limitations in the system. And having been a software developer, I can assure you that even an expertly developed system will not be able to identify suitable candidates as well as an experienced human resources professional.
But even so, I think it still serves as a pretty good indicator of the downside of taking the human out of human resources. It’s hard enough getting a hiring manager’s requirements stated clearly enough for a skilled and experienced human being to put them into a coherent job description (having had to write requirements as a hiring manager myself, I can say this with some confidence), but identifying good candidates that fit the requirement is tougher still and requires a level of judgement that only comes with experience — something much better dealt with in wetware, not software.
So, on to the actual job fair. I spotted an ad in the local paper for the job fair, which was being held at the company’s site in Cambridge, not far from here. I knew of the company, but the positions I had seen advertised previously were for skills outside my area of competence — they build communications components and systems for satellites, and the jobs I had seen before were mainly for electronics, RF and microwave engineers or for production workers and skilled trades (e.g. machinists).
But for the job fair, they were recruiting for a variety of positions, including some that matched my profile — a job that requires project management experience coupled with strong inter-personal/relationship building skills, for example. I decided that it was worth investing the time to prepare for and attend their job fair.
As noted, it was run on Saturday — presumably to allow people who are employed to attend, in addition to those who are (like myself) between jobs. There were a lot of their employees involved: from directing people in the parking lot and the lineup (and it was quite a lineup), to registering candidates as they entered (due to security and confidentiality restrictions that the facility operates under, everyone had to be signed in and out, and all cell-phones and cameras had to be left at the registration table — neatly tucked into a zippy-bag and labelled with your name for retrieval on exit), then directing people inside to various interviewing areas; not to mention the considerable effort spent in actually interviewing candidates.
While I’m sure that the employees would be compensated in some fashion for working on Saturday, with time-off in lieu perhaps, it was still impressive to observe the dedication and energy being shown by everyone — my impression was that they were putting in a lot of effort not because they were forced to, but because it was the best way to make the organization be successful.
I gathered from one of the staff that the company had put on a job fair the year before (perhaps they do it annually; I’m not sure about that, but they definitely had one last year as she talked about how hot it had been and having to take water out to the people standing in line. Not a problem this year; it was cold and there was plenty of water available in the form of rain) — I take this as an encouraging sign that their business continues to grow.
Once through the registration process, where things like name and address were noted, and the position you were interested in was marked on the top of your résumé, people were seated in the lobby until being called into one of the interviewing areas — which one depended on the type of job and skills required. After a short wait, I was ushered into a conference room with probably close to a dozen people — all HR personnel, I believe — performing preliminary interviews; a sort of triage to determine whether or not to send a candidate on for more in-depth interviewing with a manager.
I had a nice conversation with a young woman from HR, and found out that she had only been with the company for 6 weeks — I commented that they had really thrown her into the deep end right away. She asked a few questions and concluded that I should see one of the managers — she consulted her list of people conducting interviews and put the names of three of them on the top of my résumé, indicating that any of those three would be in a position to evaluate my suitability for the position; I would see whichever of them was available first.
When she was done with the interview, she gave me her business card and asked me to follow up with her after my interview with one of the managers, to let her know how it went. One of the benefits, I think, of putting the human back into human resources — with most companies, when you submit an application through their faceless internet portal, it’s generally just “radio-silence” (other than, perhaps, an automated e-mail cheerfully informing you that your application had been received) unless you get contacted for an interview.
After another brief wait while they assembled a group, we were taken in to the cafeteria where the secondary interviews were taking place. I waited there a bit longer this time, sitting through a presentation about the company, its history, products, business philosophy, corporate culture, employee benefits and so on… actually, I saw the presentation quite a few times while waiting, and noted a small grammatical error on slide 15 (in describing the function of the recreation club they used “who’s mandate is…” instead of “whose mandate is…” — I pointed this out to my interviewer so that it could be corrected, and he noted that I certainly demonstrated good attention to detail).
The interview took about 15-20 minutes, I think. The interviewer was a manager from the production engineering department, and was not the hiring manager for the position I was interested in — nonetheless, he was familiar with the main requirements of the position, so I expect that as part of the preparation for the job fair the managers who participated were briefed on all the positions being recruited for so that they could at least decide if a candidate was suitable enough to be passed on to the hiring manager later for an in-depth interview.
The discussion was very thorough, and I think we quickly established a good rapport. At the conclusion of the interview, he said he would forward my résumé to the director of the department that was recruiting the position, and he expected I would be contacted soon to set up a formal interview.
Based on the experience with the job fair and the people I met, my impression of the company was that it is a very strong, dynamic organization; that the people who work there are dedicated, committed and truly enjoy being part of a successful team. I tend to be somewhat cynical about “mission statements” and “corporate values”, but the ones stated in the presentation were: a) very much in evidence; and b) actually very much in line with my own beliefs about what makes a business strong, sustainable and a good corporate citizen.
So, my first experience with a job fair was exceptionally positive; however, I don’t expect that this would be the case with all companies running a job fair, so take that into account as well.
Also, I’ve gone from knowing almost nothing about the company, other than its name and where its products are used, to knowing a fair bit about them and being very impressed with the organization: according to the information presented, their market share for some of their products is greater than the combined total of all the other suppliers in the marketplace (granted, satellite communications components are not exactly a high-volume business… but it’s still a worthy accomplishment). Beyond the commercial success, I can see that it would be a very good environment to work in.
Oh, and did I mention the lineup? The job fair was scheduled to run from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm; I wasn’t able to arrive until right at 9 am (K was going to Toronto that morning to help her friend Karen, who’s opened a knitting store in New Hamburg called Shall We Knit?, with a booth at the DKC Knitter’s Frolic knitting show and I had to get her to the meeting point for Karen to pick her up before I went to the job fair) and the lineup was already half the length of the building.
The lineup moved slowly, and the time that was marked on my résumé at the registration desk was 10:42 am. Fortunately I was able to strike up a conversation with the woman behind me in the line, as it turned out she is also from the city where I live so we had something in common; the conversation helped pass the time and distract from the miserable weather that day.
By the time I left, it was about 12:20 pm, and I think that the lineup was even longer than when I had arrived at 9 am. When I later spoke to the woman from HR who had asked me to follow up, she said that they had been a bit surprised at the number of people who had showed up for the job fair; there were a lot more than they had expected. A sign of the economic times, I suspect.
She told me she was forwarding my résumé to the hiring manager for the position, but that they were travelling on business this week, so it would probably be the end of the week or more likely next week before I would hear from them.
Based on my very positive impressions of the company from the effort that they put into their job fair, and also the obvious quality and dedication of the people I met during my time there, I have to say I would be very pleased to become a part of their organization; one that has the Unconventional Wisdom to put the human back in human resources — they evidently see enough value in return for the significant effort it takes.