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Scope of job fairs extends beyond finding a 'right fit'

August 20, 2012 — Worcester Business Journal — The most recent U.S. jobs report, which showed that 163,000 jobs were added to the economy in July, may provide a slender sliver of hope to people who have been searching for work for months or even years. And as August winds down and executives and hiring managers return from vacation, companies may be thinking about new hiring in a more focused way.

For those workers and companies, a job fair may provide an efficient way to find each other.

Certainly, the fairs are a draw for potential employees in the current economy. Kohl’s Corp. recent held one to find applicants for 125 jobs at a new store on Lincoln Street in Worcester. A company spokeswoman said the fair was “very well attended.”

That kind of event, sponsored by one or more employers with many entry-level jobs, can spark enthusiasm and lead to lots of immediate hires. For companies with more specialized needs, it’s harder to make quick hires at a one-time event. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t good reason to take part in job fairs.

For technically proficient employees, as well as employers with specialized openings, a job fair may be a way to survey the local job market and gather intelligence about companies and industries that operate in the area. It can also be a public relations opportunity in which companies can reach out to the communities where they do business. That was the case for many businesses and attendees at a fair sponsored by the city of Marlborough and the Marlborough Economic Development Corp. earlier this summer. Five hundred job seekers crammed into a ballroom at the Courtyard Marriott in Marlborough, wildly surpassing organizers’ expectations.

Tiffany Powers, HR manager for North America at retinal imaging device maker Optos’s Marlborough location, said job fairs let the company connect with workers in the local area. Powers said the face-to-face contact also gives her closer insight into applicants than looking at a stack of resumes.

“You can learn a little bit more about what their background is,” she said.

See And Be Seen

Other employers also see job fairs as a way to make themselves visible to people in the area.

“It’s a great opportunity to get out,” said Sherrie Maker, associate vice president for human resources at St. Mary’s Credit Union.

Maker said St. Mary’s had four open positions at its call center when she attended the Marlborough fair. She said she was looking for people with some banking experience and wasn’t sure she’d find that among the job seekers at the event. Either way, though, she said the event was also a good chance to give St. Mary’s exposure, since people at the fair are also its potential customers.

Many employers say their openings require specific training and skills that they’re unlikely to find at a non-specialized job fair. Chris Phillips, northeast regional manager for Rovisys, an automation systems company that opened a Marlborough office in November to serve the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries, said he was looking for specialized engineers at the job fair.

“If we find one or two here I’ll be very impressed,” he said.

But Phillips said he was excited about the event anyway, and eager to make connections in the local area.

Instant Hire? Not Always

If some employers see job fairs more as a path to general exposure than to immediate hires, some job seekers are frustrated not to see a good fit right away. Megan Fridley of Grafton said she had attended a number of job fairs as part of her job search, but at the time wasn’t convinced that the personal contact is particularly helpful.

“You see so many people, it’s easy to forget,” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to stand out just because they see you face to face.”

Another job seeker, Mark Johnson of Hopkinton, was looking for work in his field, information technology (IT), but didn’t expect to walk away from a job fair with a job. Instead, he said, he uses the events strategically, to learn more about the participating companies. For example, he said, by talking with a Boston Scientific representative at the Marlborough fair, he was able to find out how many employees they have working remotely on smartphones and tablets. From that, he could get a sense of their likely IT needs and consider how to approach them in the future.

Johnson said an in-person conversation is a good way to get that kind of information, and, since companies often have jobs they don’t list, he figures they’re a better use of his time than scrolling through job search websites.

Companies with less specialized requirements seem to have an easier time finding potential workers at job fairs.

“I’ve had a lot of the applicants coming up and saying, ‘I need to change my career field’,” said Anita Thompson, assistant general manager at Extended Stay Hotels’ Marlborough location.

She said some people who worked in the hospitality industry years ago are having trouble finding work in other careers and are thinking of getting back into the field.

“We take anybody that’s willing to work,” she said.