A job fair with a twist

Reversal: In an unusual turnabout, job-seekers at a Frederick County event take a seat while employers stand in line.

July 28, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Antwon Ash, power-suited and bright-eyed, set up behind a table before the start of a job fair yesterday and prepared to talk career opportunities.

Except he was looking, not offering.

Frederick County is trying a role reversal as it brings employers and would-be employees together: Recruiters are the ones walking from booth to booth, instead of waiting for people to come to them.

Job fairs, like want ads, are a long-standing tradition and they're largely the same wherever you go. But here and there, organizers are putting new spins on the ritual: job-seekers giving speeches, bringing in displays, logging onto the Web for a virtual experience.

Though Frederick's "reverse job fair" is a particularly unusual twist, all these tweaks are an attempt at better matchmaking - and a chance to make an impression in a job market that is increasingly impersonal.

"You send your resume in and it's like a black hole. There's absolutely no feedback; you pray that your materials were received," said Joan Cirillo, executive director of Operation A.B.L.E. of Greater Boston Inc., which holds a reverse job fair once a year as part of its effort to help older residents find work.

This sort of event is an "opportunity for you to actually present yourself in front of a real, live employer," she said.

It's difficult for organizers to track the results, so no one knows exactly how effective job fairs of any description are. Andrea Kay, a career coach and author who works from Cincinnati, doesn't tell people not to go - but she doubts they're of much use beyond interviewing practice.

"I have never met a person or heard of a person who got a job through one," she said. "This is kind of a sniffing-around event for everybody involved, especially employers."

But fairs are a staple in Maryland - someone's always holding one somewhere. And companies that appear aren't bearing only minimum-wage jobs. Fort Detrick's event two weeks ago drew a bevy of defense contractors to the Frederick post looking for people with military backgrounds and high-level security clearances.

"I don't think the employers would sign up if they weren't hiring," said Howard Kershner, general sales manager for The Employment Guide, whose job fairs at the Baltimore Convention Center typically draw 2,500 job-seekers.

The Frederick County Business & Employment Center offers job fairs throughout the year of the traditional sort - where employers sit and everyone else walks about with resumes clutched in sweaty hands - and it plans to continue organizing those. But Heather Pinckney, a business resource specialist there, decided to try something different when she read about a reverse event organized by a group of Illinois job-seekers.

In March, Frederick held its first inverted fair - and the first one in Maryland, as far as the state labor department knows. Yesterday's event was the second trial.

"I know people are excited by the idea, so I think it could spread," said Pinckney. "It's really interesting to watch that dynamic turned upside down."

Recruiters from 16 companies strolled around the tables to chat with 26 job-seekers yesterday, and it often looked more like networking than a cold sizing-up.

"I work with 3,000 contractors, so I can pass on your resume," offered Jason Coomer, a recruiter for Tradesmen International, which provides skilled labor to the construction industry.

"That would be great," said Danielle Angeline, a Montgomery Village resident with computer-aided design experience. She has been downsized twice in two years and is looking for a growing company.

Frederick resident David Tich, who came prepared with individualized folders for the companies to which he particularly wanted to talk, ended up getting leads for management-level jobs and requests to spread the word about open positions.

"It's creating an atmosphere where the barriers are down," he said.

"I felt like an important person here," joked Travis Guettler, 31, a Columbia resident who got three leads for a job in construction - including one offer to start today. (As he's already employed, he couldn't accept that quickly.)

Tina Morgan had never been to a fair before yesterday because she has heard they're a waste of time, but this one looked more promising to her. The 46-year-old Middletown resident, who is open to any sort of employment, wanted to hear what companies had to say - and get their ear. "You're selling yourself," she said.

For Ash, 42, nothing looked perfect. But he left with a few possibilities, and he's not in a huge rush. As the director of sales and marketing for a Montgomery County company that's about to be bought out, he figured he might as well start searching early.

Though it goes to several job fairs a year, Buckingham's Choice, a retirement community in Frederick County, rarely ends up hiring as a result - most jobs are filled by referrals. But the company got a good part-time employee from the county's first reverse job fair in March.

"It took you out of the element you were used to, but it ended up being a fabulous day," said Diana Oliver, senior human resource manager for Buckingham's Choice. "There was definitely a lot more mingling going on than at more traditional job fairs. I think people felt more relaxed."

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