Virtual Job Fairs Becoming More of a Reality

By Gary Stern

Mar. 6, 2011

After failing to find a supply-chain or purchasing-agent job through networking and career websites, Antonio Beasley turned to the Big East Virtual Career Fair last November.

The 30-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, resident was pleasantly surprised to find roughly 30 firms there, and he contacted all of the recruiters online by writing a pithy introductory letter. About 10 to 12 answered with automated e-mail responses, and five recruiters even wrote a personal note. He obtained e-mail addresses from the recruiters and stayed in touch with several who said more supply-chain jobs could open up in the first quarter.

For job seekers, virtual career fairs are appealing because they’re a way to get your foot in the door without having to walk out the door. Similarly, virtual fairs are growing in popularity with employers because they can significantly expand their reach nationally and internationally at minimal expense. The Virtual Edge Institute, an organization in Pleasanton, California, whose member firms build online platforms for job fairs, says the number of fairs jumped 31 percent from 2009 to 2010, and its members expect 40 percent growth in 2011. The group declined to release the total number of fairs.

Wes Reel, a military recruiter for Houston-based Waste Management Inc., tested out three virtual job fairs last year, including Milicruit, which targets former military personnel, and Unicruit, which is aimed at college students. He sought to fill about 1,000 positions, including management trainees, maintenance directors, mechanics and accountants.

Virtual fairs usually last about five hours, though recruiters can receive

résumés online for as long as a week after the event. In its virtual “booth,” Waste Management provided links to its online career site, obtained résumés from candidates and interacted with applicants in a live chat room. Reel prepared a brief written statement that he sent to applicants online, describing available jobs. After he reviewed résumés, he sent a personal note to promising applicants.

Reel and other recruiters have found that traditional job fairs don’t always pay off. In addition to the time and expense of attending them in person, recruiters often find them inefficient because many people stop by their booth who don’t possess the right skills.

What’s more, Reel points out, transcribing e-mail addresses from lists after a job fair is time consuming. At virtual fairs on the other hand, recruiters pre-screen résumés, contact candidates who are a potential fit and store e-mail addresses automatically in their company’s computer system. If applicants pass the initial screening in the virtual fair, they typically must complete a questionnaire, take a behavioral test and do a telephone interview before meeting a recruiter in person.

Online fairs “are designed to be a first wave for recruiters. That’s it,” says Clark Walter, senior program manager at CDW, a Vernon Hills, Illinois-based company that sells computers and computer-related accessories. He used a virtual fair, for example, to interview students at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in November 2010. “CDW collected 61 résumés of potential hires,” he says. “It saved the company time and money and allowed students, even with their busy schedules, to meet employers.” Already, CDW has hired one sales account manager from the Kelley School and is considering other candidates from the university.

Felicia McKinney, another CDW recruiter who attends MBA virtual fairs to fill sales jobs, says that she must observe a candidate in an in-person interview for eye contact, confidence and general demeanor. Even so, she finds virtual fairs a valuable starting point and plans to begin recruiting information technology engineers, along with sales reps, online.

Dan Erling, author of Match: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time, notes that some virtual job fairs include video content and webcams and that more will likely incorporate video because employers prefer to observe applicants. Without video, he says, virtual job fairs are “one-dimensional, lacking body language.”

But even with video, it is still easy to get distracted at a virtual job fair. Kevin O’Brien, vice president for business development at Chicago-based UBM Studios, which runs Milicruit and Unicruit, urges recruiters to man their online booths at all times. Too often, he says, recruiters try to multitask and leave the booth vacant.

It’s too early to determine the return on investment for Waste Management, Reel says, but virtual job fairs tend to be cost effective because of travel expense savings. Most online job fairs cost companies about $1,000, he says, but those organized by business schools can be free. There’s always the risk, however, of poor attendance. Reel attended one fair where virtually no one showed up. “The problem,” he says, “was poor execution of marketing and advertising to the targeted candidates.”

Workforce Management, February 2011, p. 11Subscribe Now!

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