Job fairs stink as a hiring source. They don’t even make it on Jobvite’s top 13 list of most effective recruiting sources, and typically they produce less than 2% of all experienced hires. HR executives rated job fairs as the least effective job-search method, with a survey rating of only 1.6 out of a possible 5. And with the seemingly endless list of “what’s wrong with job fairs” presented here, I wonder why organizations still bother with them in this age of technology when there are so many better alternatives available. 

The Almost Endless List of Job Fair Flaws  

I urge you to take a quick scan through my list of what’s wrong with job fairs as a recruiting tool in order to get an idea of why they should go the way of the dodo bird.

The Top Five Strategic Flaws

1. No one will actually be hired at the event. In many cases, the available technology won’t allow applicants to complete an electronic application on your device while at the event. Also, in most cases, no one with hiring authority will even be sent to the event. Given the high volume of questionably qualified applicants visiting your booth, there simply isn’t enough time to interview and make hiring decisions at the event. 

2. They attract the barely qualified. Unfortunately, these events mostly attract the unemployed, ex-cons, and recent grads with little experience. Your ideal targets, the currently employed, are unlikely to attend because they would have to take time off work and lose money. Also, many fear being spotted by their current company or someone they know. 

3. The timing and locations don’t match your talent needs. It is highly unlikely that the timing of the available job fairs will match the timing of your current talent needs. If you need talent in late fall or during June, you’ll often find that job fairs are not even offered then. The locations of the job fairs might also mean that the attending talent doesn’t live close to where your jobs are.

4. There will be a high volume of applications that will stress your systems. Acquiring and filing paper resumes at the event will be problematic. So many will forget to actually apply. Immediately after the event, you can plan on a high volume of barely qualified individuals to apply online all at once. This will stress your hiring process and stretch out your hiring decisions. This delay will make it more likely that some desirable individuals will be lost. 

5. An insufficient opportunity to meet and evaluate the talent. Often there are huge crowds, and the odds of actually meeting the qualified attendees that fit your needs become small. The available time to accurately identify, assess, and sell the best attendees that do make it to your booth is likely to be insufficient. 

Design Issues With Job Fairs  

If you closely study job fair failures, you’ll find that there are many inherent design problems that are almost impossible to overcome. Those design flaws include:

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  • Some attendees are not even seriously looking for a job. Some attendees will only be pretending to be searching for a job. Some are there just to maintain their unemployment benefits, while others will feign interest in employment just long enough to get the free company-branded swag from your booth. 
  • Participating may hurt your brand image. These events are so antiquated that merely attending may send a message that your firm is no longer a modern employer. Other organizations have moved on to more advanced technology approaches.
  • There is no way to know in advance if quality talent will attend. The design of most job fairs means that you have no way of knowing in advance the quality of the talent that will be attending. You’ll have to sign up without knowing what percentage of the attendees even has a chance of meeting your needs. Unfortunately, most who put on these events don’t bother to gather metrics indicating quality of attendees.
  • You don’t get to decide who you will meet. In most cases, you won’t know who is coming and that means there will be no opportunities to pre-screen candidates and to invite the best to come by your booth. Unless your booth has an ideal location, you may never meet up to two-thirds of the attendees.
  • You will end up talking a great deal of the time with many people who don’t fit your needs. Unless the job fair is targeted, a large percentage of the attendees are likely to have skills and experience that may not be relevant to your company and your current needs. Your recruiters will end up having to waste their time talking to many individuals who could never be hired. If you do end up hiring the under-skilled, their performance will be delayed until expensive training is completed.
  • Maximizing results requires great recruiters, but that is problematic. Given the limited time that you will have available to talk to each attendee, you will need knowledgeable recruiters who are capable of quickly assessing whether the person is qualified and a good fit. Unfortunately, the best recruiters and most hiring managers often find these events to be tedious, tiring, and beneath them. As a result, companies often end up sending only junior recruiters and HR staff to these events. These low experience recruiters may have very little inside knowledge about the open jobs and as a result, their assessments and the advice they give to attendees may be of limited value. You also need to consider the opportunity costs because your recruiters will not be able to perform their regular duties while they are attending the event.
  • There might not be sufficient time for interviews. Even though you want a high volume of attendees, that volume may mean that there is literally no time for onsite interviews and little time for effective candidate selling. You also won’t be able to make same-day offers, further extending your time to fill. 
  • Your firm will have no competitive advantage. Because any firm that pays the fee can attend, your firm won’t have a competitive advantage that day. In fact, you may end up recruiting against your talent competitors in an adjacent booth. 
  • Many factors can limit attendance at the last minute. Bad weather or transportation issues may inadvertently keep many who planned to attend from showing up. The fear of the flu or the coronavirus these days could also limit attendance.

The Actual Costs Associated With Job Fairs Are Sometimes Hidden

Many of the actual costs are not included when the cost per hire from these events is calculated. So be sure and calculate these costs.

  • Hiring-manager and recruiter time are seldom included in the cost calculations. Because the volume of applicants may be high and the quality quite low, many recruiters and hiring managers will have to spend time responding to the applicants and evaluating the many candidates. The nonexempt recruiters who you send will need to be paid for the overtime hours that will be required for setting up and breaking everything down. If the event is out of town, the travel costs will be significant.
  • Educational and branded materials to handout are expensive. Writing and printing recruiting branding materials for the applicants to pick up demands a great deal of time. Purchasing company-branded swag is expensive and shipping these items to the event will be expensive. 
  • Pre-event advertising may be required. To ensure that there is enough interest in your company, pre-event newspaper, radio, and social media advertising may be required.
  • Registration fees can be significant. Depending on the level of event sponsorship that you decide on, company registration fees can run into the thousands.

The planning, recruiter time, and the costs involved are tremendous. The ROI of most job fairs is usually extremely low. And because the quality of applicant and quality of hire metrics are seldom applied, you likely never actually know how poorly job fair results stack up against other more modern recruiting approaches. 

Consider These More Attractive Alternatives to Job Fairs

The job fair approach that most organizations utilize may not have changed for decades, while the number of alternative recruiting approaches has increased dramatically. They include:

  • Virtual job fairs have many advantages. Because they don’t require a physical set up, virtual job fairs can be held whenever you have a talent shortage. They are electronic, so applications can be accepted instantly, and only prescreened individuals can be allowed to move on to interviews. They also leave the powerful branding message that your company utilizes the best technologies. 
  • Physical and virtual “hangouts” are now common. Technology savvy prospects are now using online and physical hangouts/meetups that can be set up on short notice. The online versions are essentially free.
  • Utilize already scheduled professional events. Monthly local industry or functional professional networking events are quite common. They attract a much higher percentage of employed individuals. In addition, they provide more time for face-to-face conversations with the right candidates. Incidentally, professional events held by organizations that happen to have many diverse members are much more likely to result in quality hires than pure diversity job fairs.
  • Online communities. There are numerous already existing online communities (i.e., on LinkedIn, Slack, and even Facebook) that cover various professional topics. Get to know the expectations of the group before you do any overt recruiting. Many firms have developed their own talent communities, where over time they assess, nurture, and sell prospects that have expressed some interest in their firm. Your own corporate alumni group made up of ex-employees who might someday return also fall under this umbrella.
  • Recruit at trade fairs. Often, the most advanced workers are sent to trade fairs. So consider very subtly recruiting at the event and even in your product booth.
  • National hiring days. National hiring days that are timed right before peak hiring needs can gather a lot of free publicity. They can often be held on your own physical sites. 
  • Speed-dating-type recruiting events. These events can be held at hotels and sponsored by your own firm or third parties. They are superior because attendees can be prescreened and they involve actual interviews.
  • Recruit where your prospects hang out. It often makes sense to recruit wherever most of your prospects often physically hang out. The U.S. Army, for example, utilizes malls for recruiting. They have added excitement to their recruiting message by providing physical and virtual-reality experiences. 
  • Recruit at certification classes. Numerous tech firms offer in-person and online software and data certification boot camps. These are ideal opportunities to assess and recruit developing talent.
  • Remote college recruiting events. Physical job fairs are also waning on college campuses. In part because many students are not physically on campus these days, firms like Amazon and Nestlé Purina are now using online remote college recruiting events and video interviews to replace the top 10 school campus events. Students in co-op and intern communities are also targeted.

Final Thoughts 

There are, of course, a few limited benefits for firms participating in job fairs. They can help your organization populate a long-term talent pipeline or prospect community. They can also provide support for you to build up a little-known brand image, while simultaneously providing a better understanding of your recruiting competition and what they have to offer. Finally, in some cases, they can help you with diversity recruiting, including for reporting purposes that you are at least talking to diverse prospects. Of course, the cynical side of me suggests that many firms are simply attending them as a way of showing executives that they’re doing something to resolve their firms’ talent shortages even though they don’t produce results. However, with so many effective alternatives, their future should be extremely limited.

Dr. John Sullivan

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

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