Monday, October 30, 2006

Job Fair Fandango

With the specter of a Christmas at the Spendorama Department Store looming on my horizon, I have spent many a recent day off jumpstarting my errant job search. Trolling the want ads and job search websites has been as productive as it’s ever been—i.e., not at all. I did, however, spy a listing which gave me a sliver of hope to cling to. “JOB FAIR!” it screamed in block letters. “OVER 70 POTENTIAL EMPLOYERS! BRING YOUR RESUME AND FIND YOUR FUTURE!”

The idea of a job fair appeals to me. There’s a refreshing cut-the-crapness to it all. It bypasses the tedious resume/cover letter tango and fast-forwards straight to that heavyweight championship of bullshitting, the job interview. Or more accurately, the pre-interview. Nobody actually gets hired at a job fair. Companies use job fairs to identify and separate the Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street” candidates from the Charlie Sheen in Real Life candidates. Those whose backgrounds most resemble that of the “Bud Fox” character get penciled in for a sit-down with the HR person. Those bearing a likeness to Sheen the Machine himself walk away with the company extension of the weird-smelling fat chick in the secretarial pool, hardy har-har.

And so, once more into the breech. A few days later, your intrepid correspondent showed up in his best bib and tucker at the designated locale of the job fair, a local junior college. Many years before, the English Department of this same school had been the scene of a few academic triumphs of mine. A couple of my instructors there had predicted Big Things for young Johnny in the near future. I hadn’t been back to the campus since then. But many of those teachers had had tenure, which meant they hung on there like barnacles to the side of a battleship. For those reasons, I studiously avoided the Liberal Arts building and proceeded directly to the job fair in the Student Union.

The job fair itself, I found, was no big deal. The easy chairs, couches and tables that usually constituted a Study Area on the Union’s main floor (I remembered, circa 1990) had been removed. They had been replaced by a series of folding tables and chairs, arranged along the walls in a giant “U” shape. At each table sat 1-2 representatives of each company, along with some company brochures and promo materials. Each table displayed a big white card on which a number had been scrawled in black marker. Each number corresponded to a company’s listing on a photocopied map every fair attendant was handed at the fair entrance by a pair of bluejeaned, T-shirted twentyish girls who were bored with a capital ‘B’ by all us old farts.

For the sake of time and space, I’ll ask you now to imagine this scenario as a segment from one of those lighthearted, upbeat comedies of the late 1980s/early 1990s, the kind that would’ve starred a young Rob Lowe or Michael J. Fox. Envision me winding my way through the crowd, map in hand, stopping at various tables to kiss ass and drop off my resume. Imagine, also, an appropriate song playing in the background—“Higher Ground” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tuff Enuff” or John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” would fit the bill. Yes, Kindred Souls, it’s the infamous “musical montage” scene, with one new wrinkle—me ducking into the men’s room, at the end, to pound my head on the sink in frustration.

Why, you might ask, was I frustrated? I’ll hit the highlights:

• It would be a nice touch, doncha think, if the company representatives could actually describe the job openings for which their employers were seeking applicants? I asked one woman what duties the “customer service representative” position entailed. Her face contorted into a mystified mask. “Um, well, helping customers, I guess. That’s Deidre’s department and she’s running late today.”

• Company representatives should view a job fair as the networking opportunity it is for them, as well as the job seeker. That means they shouldn’t immediately set fire to the bridges behind them. I attempted to give a copy of my copyediting resume to a guy representing a major suburban newspaper. He refused. “Editorial hasn’t had an opening in at least six months,” he said, pushing the page back at me. “Probably won’t for a year.” That doesn’t mean that they won’t. People quit, retire or go on personal leave every day, dude. Way to crush any and all semblance of hope I might have. With an attitude like that, no wonder that stack of subscription blanks sitting on your table seemed to be so thick.

• In every job search book or class that I’ve read/taken, the importance of collecting business cards whilst networking has been stressed in them all. Why: collect cards, follow them up with handwritten “thank-you” cards and make an impression on potential employer’s memory. But you can only collect business cards if the company reps have business cards on hand to distribute. The ratio of business cards to names/numbers scribbled on Post-It’s I collected there: 1-3. Job seekers are expected to be prepared; company reps should be, too.

• When choosing a person to represent their company, bosses should pick experience over youthful enthusiasm. When scoping out a potential employer, I’d rather talk to a battle-tested veteran than a raw recruit (see first bullet-point above). At most of the job fairs I’ve been to, the average age of the fair attendant was 35. At this fair, tables manned by monosyllabic Gen Y’ers slouched over Blackberries were left pretty much alone. Captains of industry, it looks bad when you farm the task of recruiting out to the newest, lowest-paid drones on your payroll. Give a damn, huh?

• I know this is an election year. I realize that, frequently, the majority party foots the bill for these sorts of activities. But the last thing on the job seeker’s mind is the partisan issues du jour. On the way in to the fair, I met three caffeine-amped fat cats up for reelection who shook my hand too hard and loaded me down with handbills, free pens, coupons for fast food restaurants and campaign slogans. On the way out, I met a couple more. For being such pains in the ass, I will make a point of NOT voting for any of them.

All in all, I spent about an hour there and handed out a half-dozen resumes. That was almost a week ago and I have yet to hear back on any of them. I did, however, meet a young woman representing the fine people at Best Buy. I rarely shop at Best Buy. Hell would freeze over twice before I’d work there. But the young lady bore a resemblance to Helena Bonham Carter in non-creepy mode and she was a lively conversationalist. I guess it was the suit I was wearing, as I was able to weasel a cell phone number out of her. It wasn’t, I later found out, her cell phone number. But she thought enough of me to make an effort and that’s what counts.

So the job fair wasn’t a total loss. Almost, but not totally.


Blogger Happy Villain said...

It's fairly disheartening, isn't it, that the job search and hiring process feel so deprived of any soul? The employer doesn't really care and the applicant is behaving like it's his/her first date with someone exciting, practically begging for any sign of hope that a relationship is building, and none of it is encouraging or real. I don't know what's worse, John: your job search and disappointing discoveries about that venture, or my years of heart-felt rejection letters from people who wanted to hire me, but their bosses wouldn't let them. Rejection is rejection, I guess. We should start a club.

6:12 PM  

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