When the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Engineering first implemented its Job & Internship Fair Tours during its September 2019 fair, there were two main goals for the program.
“We wanted to engage more first- and second-year students in job fairs and to reduce barriers to attendance, such as impostor syndrome,” explains Jonna McHugh, assistant director, UIC College of Engineering Career Center.
“The tour is a way for students to casually engage in a job fair in a structured environment that teaches them what to expect and reduces the intimidation factor. Impostor syndrome and the intimidation factor affect all students, but especially first-generation students.”
McHugh points out that UIC is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and more than one-third of its undergraduate student body is first-generation students. In addition, more than half of its student body is Pell-eligible.
“The tours,” she says, “are an effort to show freshmen, sophomores, and first-gen students that job fairs are accessible to them.”
The UIC College of Engineering Career Center calls them “First-Timer Tours” in its marketing to students. The center includes a link on its website to sign up for a tour, and also sends targeted emails through its CMS, mainly to first- and second-year students. Students can also drop in for a tour if they did not sign up in advance.
The career center offers three to four tour times (one per hour) during its 4.5-hour job and internship fair. Each tour lasts 30 to 45 minutes.
“We set a maximum of 15 students per tour and usually average about eight to 10 students per tour,” McHugh says.
“The tours earlier in the day tend to be fuller. Primarily, freshmen and sophomores go on the tours, although occasionally a junior, senior, or graduate student joins. Since our office serves engineering students, our job fairs and tours are mainly for engineering students, although we typically don’t turn away students from other UIC colleges who want to attend.”
The tour program leverages a valuable working relationship McHugh developed with a faculty member who teaches a mandatory communications course for computer science majors.
“I serve as a guest lecturer in his course every semester, and in return he gives most of our job fair tours,” she explains.
“In between tour times, he sits at the tour check-in table and manages the students who show up for a tour. When he is not available, I have asked our college’s admissions recruiters to give the tours. I think it’s important to find someone who either has experience giving tours, or at least has some public speaking experience.”
Tour guides show students where to line up, check bags and coats, and check-in on the CMS. They discuss professional attire and other steps that students take to prepare before the day of the fair. This, McHugh notes, is a great opportunity to plug the career center services.
Tour guides also provide students with tips on how to navigate a fair, use the floor map, and find employers on the employer list. In addition, students practice their elevator pitch.
“The tour guide uses their best judgment on stopping at an employer table,” McHugh says.
“Sometimes, the tour guides prefer to obtain consent from an employer prior to the fair; others are comfortable just going up to an employer table that doesn’t currently have any students. Tour guides should always begin by explaining that they are giving a tour and asking if the employer would like to participate. Usually, any employer who isn’t busy talking to students gives an enthusiastic ‘yes!’”
Tour guides also point out the informal areas where students can congregate to collect their thoughts and figure out what booth they’ll visit next. At the end of tour, which is back at the check-in area, the tour guide reviews some next steps that the students could take to prepare for their career. Students are encouraged to go back into the fair hall and talk to employers if they’d like to.
“When I implemented this at UIC Engineering, I spoke with Angela Froistad of the University of Minnesota, who shared with me a wealth of information about how they implemented job fair tours,” McHugh says.
“She very generously shared her tour script with me, which I adapted to fit my team’s job fairs. This detailed script serves as the primary training tool for the tour guides. Since they are experienced faculty and staff, they don’t usually need much training on how to conduct a tour, but they do need guidance on the content. I will usually sit down with any new tour guide before the fair to review the script with them and ideally do a walkthrough of the career fair hall to point out where the tour stops are located.”
Following each tour, McHugh administers a survey that asks students to rank several statements on a Likert scale, including:
- How much they learned about fairs on the tour;
- Whether they feel more confident to speak to employers;
- Whether they learned more about what employers look for; and
- Whether the tour program was well-organized.
“We also ask whether they think they will attend a future job fair and whether they will recommend the tour to a friend who could benefit,” she adds.
“In addition, we ask two open-ended questions: ‘What did you learn?’ and ‘How can the tours be improved?’ The survey responses have always been overwhelmingly positive, although the response rates aren’t where I’d like them to be.”
Acting on student insights and feedback is imperative for a successful program. For example, an instrumental alteration came with the name of the event as the career center changed it from “career fair” to “job and internship fair” based on feedback from one of its peer mentors.
“We were discussing ways to engage more students to attend the fair, and he told us that some students may not know what happens at a ‘career fair’ because they’ve never encountered the term or the concept before,” McHugh explains.
“Some students might picture something like a high school science fair. Others may not infer that there is active recruiting and hiring going on at the event. I always took for granted that students knew what a ‘career fair’ was until our student helped me realize that we could choose more accessible language.”
She explains that this is especially important for first-generation college students who are navigating college life on their own, without the help of family.
“All students want to know what they’re going to get out of an event before they decide to attend,” McHugh says.
“While ‘job and internship fair’ is more of a mouthful to say, we do believe, based on anecdotal feedback, that it has made the purpose of the event clearer to students.”
McHugh has several suggestions for her colleagues in career services who are considering offering a career fair tour program, such as:
- Having a dedicated tour check-in spot separate from regular student check-in.
- Creating a sign on a stick that the tour guide can carry so tour participants can more easily find the tour if they get separated.
- Printing nametags for tour guides.
- On the form where students sign up for a tour, having an optional text box question that asks students what they are hoping to get out of the tour, which tour guides may find helpful.
“I think the hardest part for most career centers will be finding qualified tour guides or training them,” McHugh says.
“They should try to partner with faculty or admissions staff as tour guides so they’re not training a less-experienced student volunteer. They should choose tour guides whom they can rely on to show up.”
She adds that as with any new program, it may take a while to get all the materials together the first time around.
“Once it has been implemented the first time,” McHugh says, “subsequent implementations can focus on improvement since all the materials are already created. Although it’s a small program, we have gotten consistent turnout each time, indicating there is a need for it at each fair.”