Graduate careers fairs are said to be on their last legs. But Tom Barlow looks for some vital signs of life Where else can you find dozens of employers under one roof, armed not only with vacancies and friendly advice but frisbees, soft drinks and goodie-bags? Careers fairs make job-hunters feel wanted. They allow graduates and employers to meet, perhaps for the first time.
They are a rite of passage, but have fairs lost their feelgood factor? According to some people, the traditional graduate fair is on its last legs.
Graduate recruitment is evolving, as companies try everything from virtual online fairs to speed-recruiting. And with anecdotal reports of miffed employers setting up stall at half-empty events, the value of careers fairs is under examination. And as for the customers, besides collecting boiled sweets and biros what's in it for the students? Middlesex University graduate Sonya Williams is frustrated by her experiences of graduate fairs. "I went to loads of fairs when I graduated in 2003," she says. "I had high hopes, but they were a waste of time.
As a mature graduate I found it particularly annoying that the people on the stands were recent graduates who would often just refer me back to the website. The careers sessions, on CVs and interviews, were much more useful." Yet not all such experiences are gloomy. Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, admits to having attended more careers fairs than he has had hot dinners. "There are some mixed views around, but I think that careers fairs still have an important part to play both for employers and for students," he states. "The frustrations occur if the fair fails to attract enough students or when the people haven't researched enough - it always amazed me when students would queue for half an hour at a busy stand then be unable to ask a relevant question. Their institutions have to make sure the punters get through the door and know how to use them."
Careers fairs come in many shapes and sizes - from small, targeted fairs to monster events such as those at those at London's Business and Design centre. Perhaps their biggest value is the chance to speak to industry insiders, to ask informally about company culture, or for the lowdown on selection procedures. You can also get your CV checked, often for free, or attend life changing careers seminars.
Fifteen years ago, argues Terry Jones, a spokesperson for the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, you might even land a job at the fair. "I certainly remember people getting jobs by attending fairs," says Terry. "You'd have real recruiters attending who could make real decisions. Nowadays, recruiters use online systems, so taking 25 photocopies of your CV and putting on your best suit is less important. There's less at stake." Terry senses a decline in the market. "The attendance is lower and that must be because you can get information more readily online. Plus students are frustrated when stands are manned by recent graduates who are unable to say something about the wider value of the company."
Yet some recruiters, such as Gary Argent of LogicaCMG, insist that careers fairs remain an important part of their graduate strategies. "We can speak to a lot of people very quickly," says Gary, who himself joined Logica in 1991 after meeting a rep at a college careers fair. "We target specialist fairs and get a very good response." Gary reckons that even in 2005 you might, just might, make a lasting impression at the careers fair. "We don't take CVs, as our applications are handled online, but if, occasionally, candidates have done more detailed research then I'll happily spend a fairly long time with them. It is possible you might remember them and they can talk about it on their application, but in honesty we do meet thousands of people.
Other candidates come across as overbearing and arrogant and you might remember them too." Mike Elliot is a business studies graduate, who chose to join drinks company Diageo as a result of attending a careers fair. "Until my final year my experience was a bit mixed," says the production manager, now working for Diageo in Amsterdam. "I didn't know what I was looking for so I ended up spending whole days collecting goody bags, pens and brochures."
Later on, as the pressures of graduation loomed, Mike found careers fairs more useful. "With a small amount of research you could ask very specific questions. Also, I soon realised that there were some companies that looked fantastic although I had never heard of them before - such as Diageo. It was good to talk to somebody face-to-face, rather than trawling through endless websites for information." The success of a fair, argues Mike, depends on the quality of the individuals manning the company stands. "The greatest company in the world may totally put you off if the combination isn't right."
Detractors would argue that large graduate fairs are still unrepresentative of the 'real' jobs market. "Even in the good-old days, they weren't the place to find out about SMEs -which have become more of a factor in graduate recruitment," argues Terry Jones. "Most graduates don't work for blue chips. You're only getting a slice of a particular piece of the labour market." As a result, careers consultants such as Fiona Christie of Manchester University have set up events like alternative fair Kaleidoscope. "Many students really don't want to work for a big corporation," she explains. "Kaleidoscope was set up because of the demand for information on wider career choices.
Students were frustrated with the narrow options of the mainstream." Meanwhile, less conventionally 'sexy' recruiters - retailers or services companies - still prefer to attend traditional graduate fairs. Here they can set up stall next to banks or accountancy firms and catch those students who have just received the bad news about how many UCAS points blue chips require. "We are wise and honest enough to know that insurance is not top of the career list for candidates," says Paul Goring, senior recruitment officer at insurance company Endsleigh, "but sales management, accounts, HR, marketing and account management careers might be and a fair is a great way to help candidates understand those options exist with us."
Recruiters might stand at their stall for days in a row, repeating the same old conversations. Frankly, it's dull. Yet this, they argue, is a golden opportunity for more clued up job-hunters to make their mark. "Candidates who want more than a leaflet and some freebies always impress ... the people who visit the stand at the quieter times deliberately, that give you an real impression that they have come with a plan. I am always impressed when they ask for a more three dimensional perspective on the business." Ultimately, name-dropping that in-depth employer discussion you had at the fair can add weight to your application or interview.
To boost your chances, arrive as early as possible, or even pre-register in advance, to get in before the stands are swamped. And keep an open mind. "Careers fairs do need to evolve," argues Terry Jones, "but there will always be companies who want to attend, especially those employers who are saying 'we probably aren't your hearts' desire, but you need a job and actually there might be a fit!'"