The U.S. economy may be flirting with recession, but more companies are still sending out engraved invitations than pink slips these days. And as their demand for qualified workers continues to go unsatiated, American employers are getting both more determined and more creative in how they approach, execute and follow up on “career fairs,” college visits and other hiring events.
There’s more use of marketing psychology, virtual communication and digital follow-ups—not to mention a complete abandonment of the hoary notion that, “If you post it, they will come” to such events in this labor environment. Companies are reducing qualifications for job candidates all over the place, but they’ve still got to find and hire folks even after lowering the bar. The end of the pandemic has helped.
“There’s been a resurgence in hiring events after Covid,” says Andrew Monroe, director of experienced recruiting for Veris Insights, a provider of talent information based in Washington, D.C. “Candidates are excited about events. They’re a tool that is increasingly important, not just to recruit but also to build a long-term talent pipeline and recruit diverse talent.”
Arrive Logistics, for instance, has taken advantage of “an increased preference by schools for recruiters to come physically” and last fall attended in-person about 70 percent of its 170 campus-recruiting events, says Kari Heyens, vice president of the Austin-based third-party-logistics provider. Those interactions yielded more than 1,000 applicants for jobs at the company, which employs about 2,000 people.
Yet while job candidates may end up in your web, remember that it’s still a seller’s market for labor, for the most part. And today’s workers, at least the younger ones, tend by be oriented more toward their overall career development than to what company happens to employ them at the moment. At the same time, they incline toward companies that declare a purpose beyond traditional business success.
W.W. Grainger is one company that has embraced and even created its own career events in the wake of a period of relative recruiting quiescence for the industrial-distribution giant that’s headquartered in Lake Forest, Illinois. “The labor market is tight, and it’s hard to find these people,” says Jody Catanese, Grainger’s head of talent acquisition. “And the time and effort to get people revamped in the in-person world is significant.”
So, Grainger held more than 90 recruiting sorties on college campuses in 2022 compared with fewer than 10 in 2021, has partnered with function-specific professional organizations to stage information and recruiting events, and has hosted 10 gatherings of candidates in various demographic groups through other partnerships.
“The energy and [our] team members are what really makes a difference and what [recruits] remember,” Catanese says. “They take away the interaction. We try to make it authentic, meaningful, and so they can see themselves in the organization.”
For example, Grainger recently invited about 50 students from Indiana University, more than 250 miles away in Bloomington, Indiana, to its headquarters. Students toured the campus and heard from Grainger business-line leaders first-hand about sales careers.
“They could see and experience our culture around career longevity and team environments,” Catanese says. “We’ve already had applications from it for our early-career program.”
Here are some ideas for making the most of hiring events:
Know your goals. They may not always include actually hiring people. “It’s really about being intentional about goal-setting,” Monroe says. For example, companies may take an oblique approach in order to beef up their talent pool rather than actually hire at an event, so they might favor hosting networking gatherings, career workshops and professional conferences over a recruiting fair.
Reckon with virtual options. Workers have become accustomed to online events, and online hiring events can work. “Virtual events can reach a greater audience,” says Robyn Grable, founder and CEO of Talents Ascend, a sourcing platform for under-represented groups such as military veterans. “Many people aren’t going to travel to an actual event on the off chance of meeting an employer. And you can disseminate a lot more information about a company in a shorter amount of time, and get across to a lot more candidates, than at a personal job fair.”
Specialized providers have arisen for this purpose, such as Brazen, which focuses on virtual events, offering features such as a chat function that allows “face-to-face” meetings between recruiters and candidates. Brazen also collects resumes in advance so recruiters can vet potential candidates before the hiring event.
But the virtual approach doesn’t work in every application. Pick your spots. “You can’t read all of the body language of someone at a virtual event,” concedes Grable.
Indeed, adds Monroe, “In situations where an event is really more of a one-way communication, like a workshop, online forums work really well. And candidates like to be able to consume this content on demand. But for a networking event or a job fair, people want to build in-person connections. There’s really still a strong appeal in being able to talk face-to-face.”
Respect personal space. Lack of physical engagement can be problematic in a team meeting or when signing a deal, where remote transactions have proven their limitations in the post-pandemic era. But requiring only tenuous initiation can be an advantage in the world of recruiting, where job providers may start with gossamers of candidate interest before attempting to weave a strong thread of connection and maybe even commitment.
“A lot of people are shy and don’t want to talk to someone in person but want to hear about your company,” Grable says. “If you are at a table and I’m forced to approach you for information about your company, I’m probably not going to. But if I can attend a virtual event, I can still learn about your company and I don’t have to ask anything.”
Counter-intuitively, larger and more anonymous events may be more effective than smaller, more intimate affairs. “Larger hiring events have a slight edge over smaller events,” Monroe says. “Candidates see themselves as fishing for jobs, and they prioritize many short interactions with lots of different employers over really in-depth interactions with a single employer.”
Find partners. Amid the pandemic, the Women in Manufacturing Association held three virtual career fairs for its members, who are more than 16,000 individuals at more than 2,000 manufacturing companies in the United States and about 40 other countries. But its leaders noticed that another trade group, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, had a lot of members in a demographic that WiM coveted: students.
“So we decided to partner with them,” says Jackie Bloom, director of programs and events for WiM. “The most difficult thing about fairs is getting the right people in the right seats. And they have a lot of those people.”
Linking with partners might be a good idea simply because larger events tend to be more successful, and because you can bring more resources to bear. Grainger’s new partners for recruiting events, for example, include the National Sales Network, Women in Finance, The Mom Project and the National Black MBA Association.
“Some of it is building our brand so these organizations know who we are and what we stand for and to build pipelines, connecting them with our hiring managers for in the future when we do have needs,” Catanese says.
Beat the bushes. Look for candidates for career events in untapped data such as lists of connections that you might not intrinsically relate to a job fair—for instance, your customers, or an industry talent community.
“Every business has loyalty lists of customers that are a treasure trove, and you can simply send out an email to them saying you’re having a hiring event,” says Thad Price, CEO of Talroo, a job site that has a platform for promoting hiring events.
In outreaches to prospective talent on LinkedIn and other social-media sites for the event, Monroe advises, “Make it look it’s coming from a hiring manager, not from recruiters—from people actually connected to the roles you’re going to be hiring for.”
As you get the word out, tease for commitments and interest using scheduling apps such as Eventbrite. Then pester people. “Where events fall apart is, they don’t advertise,” Price says. “One of the key things is to remind people this is happening with emails to get them to show up at the location and text messages to remind them as you get closer to the date. You have to put money behind it.”
Prime the pump. Consider mini salvos that expose your brand ahead of a hiring event on campus or elsewhere. “You may be up against 20 or 30 or a hundred other brands, and if you’re not being recognized and sought out ahead of time, it can be tough to create meaningful engagement,” Heyens says. “Think about hosting smaller, branded events before the bigger career fair and show up on campus doing more targeted events with student organizations to connect people to your brand.”
For instance, at the University of Miami last year, Arrive co-founder and president Eric Dunigan had coffee with students who’d signed up in advance for 15-minute meet-and-greets before a campus recruiting event.
Project stability. While millennials and GenZ members mostly have been hiring into an “up” economy, many have been shaken by the tens of thousands of recent layoffs by big tech companies and others, some of which until very recently were regarded as A-list targets by job seekers.
That’s why it’s crucial at events to communicate long-term reliability, which may include attributes such as financial dependability and corporate resilience. “What we see in candidates is that a company projecting stability is really one of the top things they look for,” Monroe says.
Be ready for their topics. Young workers today are characterized more than their elders not only by a desire for remote work, physical flexibility and progressive technology but also by concerns about corporate purpose and action on diversity.
“They want to make sure, in an organization they’re seeking, that the money is where their mouth is,” Catanese says. “They don’t want to know that we just talk about these issues but that we’re doing something to improve them. They push us hard for responses.”
Bring them to you. Field trips to your environs can be really effective. Mercedes-Benz of Manhattan, for instance, partners with local high schools to bring groups of kids into its service department where they can see state-of-the-art electronic diagnostic and repair equipment and meet technicians who can dazzle them with those devices as well as get them excited about the prospect of working on new technologies such as all-electric vehicles.
“Most times, they’re amazed,” says Patricia James, the dealership’s assistant manager for technician learning and development. “They understand why this isn’t the kind of place you just come in for a year or two. The environment and our team members help them think about career development and opportunities here.”
Fly your brand. At the event, Price advises, “Make it easy for people to find you with ‘come inside’ signage. Have people at the door. Don’t let people meander around a location trying to understand where the recruiter is.”
Grainger handles that with “the black and red of the Grainger logo and slick signage at our events,” Catanese days. “And you can’t show up to an event without some kind of [branded] tchotchkes. The more interesting and diverse they are, the more helpful they are.”
But keep any free swag “pretty basic,” Heyens advises. “Over-the-top merchandise might be great for people passing by to grab stuff, but it’s not necessarily moving the needle on engagement.”
Bring in role models. People already in roles related to your hiring needs can be great assets at events. “Send more than just HR or a recruiter to an event,” Heyens says. “It’s always important to have someone like that to manage the process and the event, but the more impactful person to send to an event is a person currently in the job we’re recruiting for at that event—maybe a year or two into their sales career, if we’re recruiting salespeople.
“Someone on the job will be able to paint the picture very quickly. Plus, it’s a great career-development opportunity for [the staff person], a great way to get involved in something outside their role, and just a way to break up the work week for them.”
Be pitch perfect. For one thing, know what you’re seeking. “In having a conversation, you can say that you’re looking for someone to drive heavy equipment, you’re not wasting time trying to figure out if you are a match,” Grable says. “The company should know exactly what they’re looking for.”
Prepare a message for an elevator-pitch time frame rather than for a conversation-at-Starbucks leisurely pace. “You must be able to flip through your script quickly and be able to talk about what career growth at your company looks like, work-life balance, a description of company benefits and even compensation ranges,” Monroe says. “So you become the fisherman instead of the candidate. And you may have an extraordinarily short amount of time, like five minutes.”
Mercedes-Benz Manhattan’s recruiter, Jerry Rosiel, advises, “Try to give everyone who comes to the table a certain amount of time, not just talking to groups of them but speaking to the individual. When are you graduating? What areas are you interested in? Where do you live? How long would your commute be? Get to know them a bit.”
Pick up on clues that may be subtle, such as hints that your interactions are headed in one direction or another. “One thing we’ve found is that candidates asking a lot of questions of you is a better signal than if they just hand you their resume,” Monroe says. “Being attentive to cues like this is critical for separating out the people who are genuinely interested from the just curious.”
Clarify next steps. Companies can create promising engagement with potential hires but then screw up in the aftermath. So create clear processes that spell out expectations and paths.
“Am I [the candidate] supposed to follow up or is the company following up?” Heyens says. “Does this meeting mean I’ve just applied? How many resumes we get doesn’t matter; it’s engaged candidates that we’re after.”
Arrive hands the candidate a half-page flyer with a QR code that will take them directly to a link where they’re supposed to reply. That reply tells the company recruiter who it is, from what school, and from which recruiting event, and provides a candidate profile. Arrive has a CRM-like tracking system “that allows recruiters to synthesize applicants’ interest,” Heyens says.
Constant contact thereafter can provide long-term benefits if not immediate hires. For instance, Women in Manufacturing maintains a “WiM Works” job board “that helps us stay in contact with job seekers year-round as well as companies that are recruiting,” Bloom says.
Follow up—but at a distance. Use e-mail to reach back out to candidates. “But not within 24 hours,” Monroe advises. “Give things a chance to cool off. From 24 to 48 hours afterward is the sweet spot. Candidates are decompressing after an event, and they might be traveling or not attending to their email within that 24-hour period anyway. But they do want to hear back quickly from employers, so you want to focus on that critical window of one to two days.”