Career fairs are possible the most under-valued of all routes to a new career. That’s not to say they are poorly attended, they are frequently packed. But people who attend career fairs tend to do so fairly randomly, few people visit them with a strategic purpose in mind.
Career fairs come in all shapes and sizes. There are the large ones which take place at major exhibition centres. There are small, local events, often sponsored by an employer who has a particular interest in recruiting. And there are university, ‘milk-round’ events.
Typically a career fair will consist of a number of stalls, each promoting a particularly company, trade or profession. Visitors have the opportunity to speak to the exhibitors about the organisation they are representing, to collect literature and often to make a follow up appointment to discuss the organisation or profession in detail. All this is valuable. But it tends to be somewhat ad hoc; everything hinges on which organisations are exhibiting.
So if you are looking for a new career, or are just starting out with your career, how can career fairs best help you? Clearly you won’t want to restrict your career choices exclusively to the companies who you meet, so how can you best take advantage of your conversations with them? How can you be sure that the fact that you have met someone from a particular company does not skew your choices towards them, at the expense of opportunities which may be better for you?
The answer has to be that your visit to a job fair forms part of a larger, more structured research plan in which you are investigating as many different avenues as you can. Rather than going to a career fair on the off-chance to see who is there, choose which fairs you go to, having first identified who is exhibiting. Most good career fairs will announce the exhibitors on their website so it shouldn’t be difficult for you to plan your visit.
Go to the career fair armed with a list of the exhibitors you want to meet, and a list of the questions you want to ask them. Remember that although this is not a job interview they will be forming some preliminary impressions about you, so make your questions relevant and informed. But also bear in mind that the people you will meet on their stand are not necessarily going to be the decision makers if you do decide to apply for a job with them. So, once you have finished talking to them, if you still feel that the company, trade or profession that they represent is still of interest, try to book a follow up meeting with someone who can tell you more and who can get you started on the process of applying for a job.
A structured approach like this should help you to maximise the opportunity that a career fair offers to you. But at the same time, walk around the fair with your eyes open. You may just spot something really interesting that isn’t on your target list. And although you don’t want your visit to become a random dipping in and out of different stalls, it’s never a good idea to overlook a potential opportunity that you hadn’t thought of before.