Looking for work demands different strategies and forms of engagement. Some individuals are comfortable networking and looking for opportunities at events including career fairs. Others are not as sociable and would rather more discreetly apply for jobs online. Still others are looking for more direct referrals for jobs and seek informational interviews and one on one meetings with people who can make connections. Ideally, looking for work should include all of these approaches. In some cases, you might need to do more of one than the other. For instance, if you are looking for work in a field that is narrowly focused with only a limited number of employers, one on one connections might make most sense. If on the other hand, the types of jobs you are looking for are seemingly plentiful, and then online might be a viable approach (although you should also include other strategies).
Career fairs are typical venues for identifying potential employers. These opportunities can be good places to get a “lay of the land” so to speak. By attending, rather than applying for jobs at the fair (which you can do at times), you should be more focused on the types of employers who are there. Are they small firms or international groups? Not for profits, or for profits? Local or federal government? Getting a handle of who exactly is hiring should result in your better honing a pitch and revising your resume.
If you are fairly sure about what you are looking for at a career fair, then attending with the intent to engage an employer at a fair is important. In that case, dressing for an interview, bringing resumes, and having business cards would be in order. Though your conversation with a representative of an employer might be short and in the midst of other conversations and crowd noise, making a good first impression is important and critical. Representatives tend to be either (1) human resources staff who might have only a general sense of what the firm is hiring for, but can provide specific guidance on the process or (2) program specific staff, who know more about specific needs, but might have less insight into the hiring steps. In either case, your initial conversation can leave an important lasting impression and help advance you to the formal application process.
Career Fairs can be intimidating. There is much a buzz, they can be crowded, and as a result might cause some anxiety and stress. Try to find a quiet place to take notes, review your resume, grab coffee, and then reengage. A good outcome is meeting someone, possibly someone also looking for work who you can share notes with, or a more senior professional who might offer you some advice. Get their contact information and try to connect with them later through LinkedIn, for coffee or a Skype call.
In any case, you should not shy away from a career fair. Some are general and deal with a range of employers such as a specific kind (e.g., not for profit work) or governmental sector. Others might be more specific as to a field such as international development, or peacebuilding, or for a specific group, like State Department program alums (like Fulbright!). As you can see, I linked to a few I’ve attended lately. They are a good opportunity to get your feet wet and see what opportunities you should be considering.
—David J. Smith
David J. Smith (Fulbright Scholar, Estonia 2003-2004) is a career coach and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is on the career advisory board of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. David writes regularly on career issues at davidjsmithconsulting.com. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.