If We Kill Career Fairs, Then What?

October 8, 2021 | By Julia Overton-Healy

Picture of classroom

TAGS: employer relations, member voices, operations, recruiting, trends and predictions,

Ah, the career fair. A venerable institution, a revenue maker, and also a voracious monster with diminishing returns for many of us.

What’s causing the demise? Maybe it’s a function of technology (goodness—what ISN’T?) that makes walking around a gymnasium, gripping resumes in sweaty palms, stumbling through self-introductions, and suffering through awkward 5-minute interactions that ultimately end up with the phrase “check out our website” so wonderfully unappealing. The social detachment and lack of communication skills fostered by COVID-19 should be thrown in there, too. And let’s not forget the very real anxiety felt by underrepresented students who have low social capital to understand how to ‘work’ a fair.

The pandemic has shaken up how employers recruit, with many preferring to do their own thing, and with some platforms now including one-on-one virtual meeting feature for employers to connect with students, Career services has been largely cut out as the connector. Might this, too, be having an impact on student engagement?

Or perhaps the crazy shifting job market is changing the recruitment game. Many employers can find more highly experienced candidates than what new grads can offer. What enduring value does college recruitment offer for employers anymore? It used to be brand awareness but much of that can be done through social media.

Despite doing everything imaginable and reasonable to promote a recent fair to our students, including direct email, social media, tabling, incentives, communications from employers, faculty support, and even cancelling class to accommodate the event, we didn’t get student numbers. And, as you know, low student numbers means employers are unhappy. Conversely, we scheduled a different industry-specific fair that historically has wildly high employer and student numbers and didn’t get enough employers to register. If they won’t come to the fair, why should we offer one? With low employer numbers, students bail out.

There are lots of attractive reasons to kill the fair: no more dealing with venue reservations, table maps, shuttles, food service, physical check-in, parking, signage, fee processing, and the constant threat of crappy weather. No more dependency on student numbers to show our ‘value’. Releasing ourselves from a legacy event that has no resonance for today’s Gen Z students, who generally seem to want personalized experiences.

But there are downsides, too: loss of visibility—without our industry-specific fairs it will look like we risk being accused of doing nothing, and a potential loss of revenue as our fairs bring in some nice coin. We’ll have to spend more sustained energy/attention to manage an ongoing schedule of employer visits and interview days instead of one event. Truly, once the fair is over, we all feel a relief. I’m not sure we’d feel relief with near-daily employer visit days. It’s a fever still, just a low-grade one.

So the question remains: If we kill the fair, what are we doing instead to foster student-employer engagement? Some are moving to networking soirees—small, frequent, and relaxed. Others are doing only employer tabling days and locating employers in the spaces where students are i.e., an accounting firm in the building for business courses. Some campuses have fully embraced the industry-specific/boutique event approach, but others say that defeats the spirit of career exploration. Still others say let employers do their own information sessions and we attend as career coaches in the wings to help guide conversations.

Years ago, Andy Chan declared “Career services is dead” ... and it ushered in a revolution of new thinking about this profession. Maybe that statement is now echoed in a new form: Career fairs are dead. But it makes me wonder: What’s the bold new context we’re creating if they are?

Dr. Julia Overton-Healy is director of Career Services at St. John Fisher College and has spent all but two (out of nearly 35) years of her professional years in higher education, with most of that time in Career Services. Known for being blunt-spoken and occasionally acting the agitator, Julia embraces the challenge-and-support approach to her work. Her happiest days happen when a student (or alum) says “I don’t need you anymore – I got this”. Currently she is collaborating with professionals from more than 30 colleges to develop a handbook on the career-readiness competencies to be used by career services professionals.