A career fair brings many images to mind, including aisles of booths armed with impressive company displays, talkative employers, professionally dressed job seekers wandering from booth to booth, a buzz of career-related conversation, and resumes – lots of resumes.
True to that image are career fairs at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). At Grand Valley, career fairs are at sponsored by the Career Services department, which is housed in room 206 of the Student Services building on the Allendale campus. Faculty and staff in this department work hard to organize career fairs that will help Grand Valley students get a foothold in the professional world.
Currently, Career Services coordinate seven different career fairs. Four of these are unique to Grand Valley, and the three others are part of a consortium that includes Calvin College, Aquinas College, Hope College, and Cornerstone University. The fact that a school the size of Grand Valley offers so many career advancement opportunities indicates a high level of university commitment to its students. The comprehensive list of career fairs currently offered at Grand Valley includes:
GVSU Careerfest (Fall)
West Michigan Career Connections (Winter)
Career Expo (Winter)
Teacher Search (Winter)
Health Career Day (Winter)
Summer Job Fair (Winter)
Out-of-State Teacher Fair (Winter)
The purposes of Grand Valley career fairs are many. Susan Simmerman, Associate Director of Career Services, puts it this way, “[Career fairs] provide students with opportunities to learn about organizations, career options, connect with employers (networking), and obtain internships or full-time positions. Bottom line…career development purposes for students.”
Getting a career fair set up requires a great deal of preparation. The first task that Career Services staff goes through is to make sure employers will be present. To do this, they contact and invite employers who have attended past career fairs, gather specific needs of all the employers and try to accommodate them, hire student groups to assist with employers will who have set-up needs, chose menu items, and take care of registration and parking details for the employers who confirm.
Once employers are confirmed and plans are underway, staff must determine the career fair details like a location, a time, and the duration of the event. Then, they must decide upon an appropriate layout for the event. This is an important aspect, because how accessible the employers are to students can make a big difference in both the employer and student experience. In fact, an employer who has attended several Grand Valley career fairs had this to say about the Fall 2004 Careerfest, which was located in the Eberhard Center on the downtown Grand Rapids campus, “Space was too packed and crowded. There wasn’t much room for people to [move] around the tables.” Career Services staff takes comments like this and tries to improve the next career fair experience for attendees.
Finally, after all the career fair details are ironed out, Career Services must start advertising and marketing the fair to students. To do this, announcements are put on bulletin boards around campus, articles are put in campus publications, and signs are displayed in popular students gathering areas on campus. In addition, individual invitations are sent by mail to all students with a senior class status.
Student turnout at Grand Valley career fairs has remained steady each year. As the economy is improving in recent years, employer turnout is increasing. This bodes well for the future of the fairs. Chris Plouff, Director of Career Services, says that they typically see between 40 and 80 employers, depending on the event and timing, and between 300 and 600 students. However, Career Services staff continues to have high expectations. Susan Simmerman says, “We’re never pleased with the turnout we get…We’re always working to attract more and better employers, as well as more students.” Mr. Plouff adds, “For a school our size, we should be seeing more than 300-600 student[s] attending.”
Everyone involved in a Grand Valley career fair benefits from the experience. Members of Career Services enjoy providing the opportunities for students to learn about careers, companies, and employers. They also like to see employers find that “perfect” fit for the position they are looking to fill.
Employers gain value from their experience by advertising and promoting themselves to students and gaining a reputation among potential employees. In addition, by attending career fairs, they often get the first opportunity to find new talent to hire. Of all the employers who attend career fairs, around half of them attend looking to fill entry level full-time positions. The remaining fifty percent is looking to fill internship positions.
Students who go to Grand Valley career fairs are the participants who have the most to gain from the experience. Students can learn many things and gain important skills from attending. The most basic skills students will gain are resume writing and dressing to impress. Attending a career fair without a polished, professional resume and appearance is like going white water rafting without the raft. In addition, at a Grand Valley career fairs, students experience supply and demand in the local job market first hand, especially if they attend more than one career fair. They will then be able to see trends in the job market. Students also learn about the kind of positions and options available in the world after college, how to be effective in communicating and connecting with employers, and how to prepare for conversations with employers by researching the companies prior to attending. Something that is an eye-opener for many students is when they attend and see so many other students vying for the same jobs; they realize just how competitive the job market really is. Ben Occipinti, a former Grand Valley student, puts it in perspective, “Looking around at your competition can be extremely daunting.”
Students who have attended career fairs have many words of wisdom for those attending for the first time or those who are thinking of attending.
Ben Occipinti, April 2004 graduate: “The more contacts you make the better. The more aggressive and memorable you are to the person talking to you, the better. Talk to many companies, even if they don’t have your respective career path advertised. They’ll put your resume on file and you may get a call from it a year later or more.”
Austin Prater, April 2005 graduate: “Be comfortable talking about yourself…strengths and weaknesses. But you want to be able to tailor your strengths to the company and the specific position.”
Susan Simmerman, Associate “Students should start attending no later than their
Director of Career Services sophomore year, just to see what the process is like, start networking with employers, and learning about career options.”
Matt Jansen, Dec. 2004 graduate: “…look at which employers will be present and which jobs they are looking to fill. Next, … try to prepare resumes highlighting skills they’ll be looking for.”
The most important advice that all attendees, including Career Services staff, employers, and students, agree upon and mention repeatedly, can be summarized like this:
“Prepare thoroughly! Research and gain knowledge about the companies you will talk to, have an up to date resume, and dress in business professional attire.”
Many students express negative opinions about Grand Valley career fairs, but when asked, these students are those who did not adequately prepare for the event. Some students express that it is too much work to prepare for a career fair and find the time between classes to attend when jobs can be found online. Susan Simmerman, through her extensive work with employers, can counter that argument. “From the student end, it seems that popularity [of career fairs] has been declining, perhaps due to the mistaken notion that it’s easy to use the Internet to find apposition when it’s needed. In reality, employers report that they typically hire only 5% of all new hires from Internet resources.”
Career fairs can be daunting, but they can be exciting and rewarding as well. Grand Valley fairs are small, personal experiences that give attendees what they put in. For employers, there is that chance that the employee they have been looking for might walk around the corner of the aisle at any moment. For students, there is that hope that they will find an internship position that will open doors in the future, or maybe that they will find the open door itself and attain a full-time career.