It used to be that career fairs brought recruiters and job seekers under the same roof, usually in a large hotel ballroom where hordes of anxious applicants dressed in business attire and carrying manila folders filled with résumés and cover letters queued up to meet prospective employers.
Brick-and-mortar career fairs still exist, of course, but virtual job fairs are gaining in popularity. The look and feel are the same as traditional job fairs, but with virtual company booths and avatars—the online images of people—covering the ballroom floor.
The difference is that the networking between job seeker and recruiter takes place online, which both sides can access by logging on to a specific Web site at a designated time and date.
Virtual job fairs are hosted either by a single company or by a group of employers that partner to promote the event. Recruiters and candidates meet remotely through online texting or by Web camera, meaning a single recruiter can potentially contact thousands of candidates without leaving the office.
Several factors have pushed the popularity of virtual career fairs in the last two years. Companies have grown comfortable with using online recruitment tools in general—such as job boards and social networking—and are willing to be more experimental. The attraction of such cyber-events is understandable, says Andrew McIlvaine, director of interactive solutions, mid-Atlantic region, at Bernard Hodes Group.
"They are practical and efficient in reaching Gen Y talent and can bring down the cost of talent acquisition," he says.
Companies including Unisfair, CollegeGrad.com and organizations such as the National Association of Colleges and Employers are offering virtual job fairs as demand for the events surges. Unisfair, a San Francisco-based host of online job fairs, expects events to more than double this year, says Brent Arslaner, Unisfair’s vice president of marketing.
Arslaner says the company will organize about 50 virtual career fairs this year. Online traffic also is growing, he says. Previously, just a few hundred individuals would pop up looking for jobs at the virtual career fairs. Today, that number averages 1,500 to 2,000 participants.
Big brand employers, such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems and IBM, are trying out virtual fairs. But McIlvaine cautions that organizing such online events require the same level of planning required for a live career conference.
"Some companies think that putting on a virtual job fair is as easy as clicking a mouse," Arslaner says. "That is not the case at all."
Companies are advised to take special measures to ensure the success of their events. Arslaner says employers must define what they hope to attain by participating in a virtual career fair. They need to be as specific as possible about the type of talent they want to hire—skills sets, the level of seniority and whether they need certifications. The wish list helps organizers create an advertising strategy to target the appropriate audience and bring in talent with the desired characteristics.
One of the biggest mistakes companies make at virtual career fairs is understaffing, says Nov Omana, managing principal of consultancy Collective HR Solutions. Being short on staff is a concern, because it means candidates will have to wait a long time before interacting with a company representative. There is software to help recruiters manage the volume of candidates visiting their virtual booth, but it can only do so much.
"At the end of the day, you need enough manpower so you can provide adequate attention and create a positive experience for the job candidates," Omana says. "Otherwise you run the risk of tarnishing your brand."
It’s important to remember that understaffing isn’t always caused by poor planning; sometimes it’s a byproduct of weak support from the recruiting team, McIlvaine says.
"Problems will arise if not everybody has the same level of commitment," he notes. "The people who are championing the virtual career fairs need to be able to sell it across the company."
He says training is essential in rallying support, particularly because most people are unfamiliar with virtual career fairs. McIlvaine recommends holding meetings to ensure that everyone understands how these events work and what everyone’s contribution will be.
Despite the potential for glitches, virtual career fairs are likely to keep growing, says Steven Rothberg, CEO of CollegeRecrutier.com.
"As long as they continue to draw Gen Yers, companies will continue to be interested in them," he says.
Rothberg isn’t surprised that virtual career fairs are becoming more popular among Generation Y.
"They don’t have to spend money on travel or go through the hassle of printing out résumés," he notes. "And as an added bonus, they don’t have to put on a stuffy business suit."