Did COVID-19 kill the campus career fair? With many universities looking to remain closed during the fall semester and the future of many businesses uncertain, the cornerstone of the entry-level recruiting calendar has been thrown out the window — but that may be a good thing.
Campus recruiting fairs can be time-consuming, expensive and limited to the handful of campuses that your recruiting team has the time to visit in any given year. If you are wondering why there is a lack of diversity in your recent graduate candidate pool, on-campus fairs could be part of the problem.
Fortunately, there is a better, cheaper, more agile solution: virtual career fairs. These online events allow companies to attract candidates from a much wider geography at less cost, and with a more technology-friendly experience. “One of the values of virtual is access to a more diverse candidate pool,” says David Kozhuk, CEO of uConnect, a virtual career center vendor in Boston. “Anyone can be part of the experience, so it levels the playing field.”
Companies are finding these online events can deliver more value than a booth on campus. “Even before the pandemic, we needed a great recruiting presence online,” says Jenn Prevoznik McNamara, lead of early talent acquisition at software solutions company SAP. SAP has been running virtual campus fairs for years through partnerships with universities, as well as hosting their own online events — and they’ve been very pleased with the results. “We see large audiences without all the travel, which means we can run more of them every year.”
It also frees recruiters to spend more time engaging with candidates in chats and breakout sessions where they talk about the company culture, job opportunities and life at SAP. “It allows them to get closer to the candidate in their own homes,” she says.
Connecting Students to Potential Jobs
Since the pandemic started, more universities and organizations have started running virtual career events as they look for new ways to connect students to potential job opportunities.
These include Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas, which hosted its first virtual career fair in May 2020. “We had wanted to do a virtual career fair before the pandemic started, because a lot of our students take classes online,” says Laura Shackelford, direct for the TWU Career Connections Center. “The pandemic just sped things up.”
TWU piloted its first virtual career fair in mid-May using Easy Virtual Fair. The platform provides a 3D conference center where companies set up booths with their logos and banners and chat virtually with potential candidates. Job seekers can upload their photos and resumes and share them with employers as they browse the fair.
The vendor also provided training videos for recruiters and job seekers on how to set up booths, navigate in the environment and use the chat features to connect. “The training is critical, because a lot of them have never participated in a virtual event before,” Shackelford says.
TWU’s first event featured 45 employers, many of whom never recruited directly on campus. Hundreds of students and alumni attended, and more than 200 had live chats with potential employers. “It was a fantastic response,” she says. She’s now planning to do all of TWA’s fairs virtually, at least for the time being.
The Fairfax County Economic Development Authority in Fairfax County, Virginia, took a similar approach. FCEDA was in the midst of planning a series of live talent acquisition initiatives when COVID-19 hit. “We had to pivot quickly,” says Victor Hoskins, CEO.
Mike Batt, talent initiative program manager, notes that many graduates and students in the area lost their jobs and internships when the pandemic hit. “It created turmoil for a lot of students, and we wanted to help,” he says.
In response, he decided to replace their live events with a virtual career fair, focusing on 2020 graduates to fill some of the 35,000 tech jobs in the region. His team had never hosted a virtual event before, so they spent six weeks attending other virtual fairs, learning about the vendors, contacting colleges and universities in the area, and securing corporate attendees.
“We wanted a good mix of small, mid-size and large enterprises,” he says. They also kept the fair to just 11 companies—including Brazen Technology, the virtual career fair vendor who also hosted a booth—to be sure it would work.
Students could chat with two companies at a time, and schedule video interviews if there was additional interest. For the first event, Batt anticipated up to 1,000 student attendees. “It’s a great opportunity for us to keep local talent local,” Batt says.
The Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio hosted its first Central Ohio ReEmployment & Resource Virtual Hiring Event (CORRE) in April 2020. The response was so positive, the organization now hosts them every week, with new employers featured at each event. Participants can access the event from 8:00 a.m. on Thursday through 11:59 p.m. Saturday, visiting booths, chatting to recruiters and leaving messages for follow-up talks. “It’s been very successful.” says Lisa Patt-McDaniel, CEO. She estimates the weekly events have reached more than 1,700 job seekers and featured more than 40 employers of all sizes in the region.
Encova Insurance is one of those featured employers. “We are an essential business so we are still hiring and we wanted to get our name out there,” says Melinda Fisher, talent acquisition specialist for Encova.
She admits that she was a little hesitant about recruiting in virtual environment. “I had never been to a virtual career fair or built a virtual booth,” she says. But the CORRE team did most of the work for her. Fisher provided Patt-McDaniel's team with logos and job details and selected the booth model, then they did the rest.
Fisher has participated in several CORRE events, and has gotten promising resumes for a number of roles, across the IT department, HR, corporate communications and finance. “We’ve seen a great variety of candidates, especially for IT and customer service roles,” she says.
It’s been so successful, she believes it will be a permanent part of her recruiting strategy.
One of the values of virtual is access to a more diverse candidate pool. [...] Anyone can be part of the experience, so it levels the playing field.
—David Kozhuk, CEO, uConnect
Meanwhile, Patt-McDaniel is planning to offer additional virtual recruiting event focused on specific industries and job seekers. “If we can focus on one sector we can make better matches,” she says.
Virtual Recruiting: How to Do It Right
For companies that want to try their hand at virtual career fairs, the experts offer this advice:
1. Talk to campus career centers.
“It’s the best place to find out about events and to connect with the widest group of students,” Kozhuk says.
2. Look for local organizations.
Many development agencies, chambers of commerce and industry associations are also planning virtual events, and looking for participants. “A lot of small businesses don’t realize that these kind of resources are available,” Patt-McDaniel says.
3. Put effort into your booth.
“You want a site that you can be proud of, Fisher says. “It will represent the company.”
4. Take advantage of the training.
Most virtual career fair vendors offer tutorials on how to build a booth, use their chat features and connect with participants. Taking advantage of the training will ease your stress and ensure you represent your company effectively in a virtual environment.
5. Promote the fair.
Post messages on social media, invite past job applicants and encourage your employees to leverage their own networks to get the word out.
6. Be proactive.
“Don’t wait for candidates to approach your booth," Shackelford says. If you see a profile or resume that you like, send a note to that candidate and ask them to stop by.
7. Get your pitch ready.
Even with high unemployment rates, certain roles will always be hard to fill, so be ready to sell. Talk up the culture, your values and the workplace. “It’s not enough to just share a job description," says Patt-McDaniel. “You want candidates to know why people love working for you.”
Photo: Getty Images