Welcome to the virtual interview

Big firms are to start job interviews today in online world that lets applicants alter their appearance

May 15, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,Sun reporter

Stephan Dowler created a digital character named Estephan Dollinger and fretted over his alter ego's hair and wardrobe. And he spent six hours exploring a virtual world called Second Life, where Internet users act out parallel lives.

After all, even in this three-dimensional social networking space, Dowler wants his virtual persona, known as an avatar, to look and act professionally.

That's because Dowler, or rather Dollinger, will be teleported to a virtual island on the digital universe for a job interview today. His avatar will be interviewed by another pixilated character representing a recruiter from Sodexho Inc., a Gaithersburg hospitality company, in what is being billed as the world's first virtual job fair.

"I spent many hours in it to be comfortable with my avatar. To make sure I could move around smoothly," said Dowler, 37, a sous chef from Frederick, who's looking for an executive chef or hospitality management job. "I was concerned about the way you're dressed. You see naked people in Second Life."

It was only a matter of time before companies went looking for job candidates in the virtual world. In an experiment that begins today and runs through Thursday, companies such as eBay Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft Corp., Sodexho, T-Mobile and Verizon Communications Inc. will hold a nationwide job fair in the cyberspace community called Second Life.

A growing number of people are using the Second Life Web community to converse with others through instant messaging and the animated characters they've created.

Second Life characters can do all sorts of things, such as date and buy clothes, so why not experiment with a virtual job fair where the companies can lure candidates to come work for them in the real world?

"We see this as a new vehicle that we will be a pioneer of reaching a new generation of candidates and connect them in a distinct way that's as entertaining as informative," said Kelly McCorkle, Verizon's manager of recruitment, operations and strategies. "We need to provide recruiters with the right tools to bring the right talent."

Employers already are using social networking Web sites and other forms of Internet recruiting to attract workers. Now they are going a step further to distinguish themselves from the pack as competition for talent intensifies.

A recent survey by Monster Worldwide, a top job search Web site, and Development Dimensions International, a talent management firm, found that 73 percent of staffing directors said competition for qualified candidates has increased since 2005, and 79 percent expect competition to intensify this year. (The survey polled 1,250 hiring managers around the world and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.)

"The companies are reaching out into many different creative ventures as they can because the market requires it," said Steve Tiufekchiev, associate director of employer development in the Office of Career Management at University of Maryland, College Park's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

To that end, companies are creating pages on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to attract college students and other tech conversant people. Others are supplementing their career pages on their corporate Web sites with recruiting blogs and videos featuring interviews with current employees.

John Refo, director of marketing for TMP Worldwide, a New York recruitment advertising agency, which is hosting the Second Life career fair, said companies are increasingly seeking new and innovative ways to engage job seekers.

Second Life "is a perfect way for job seekers and recruiters to come together in an unique, fun and branded environment," Refo said.

In the Second Life universe, users can create avatars who are as varied and different as can be imagined.

Although relationships formed among Second Lifers are mostly anonymous, that won't be the case for the virtual interviews starting today.

Because there is some pre-screening involved in the recruiting event, employers say they'll know the person on the other end.

The potential downside is that a job candidate's avatar could work against him if it is too over the top. Those who "pass" the Second Life interviews will be sought out by the companies in the real world.

HP, Sodexho and Verizon are looking for college graduates and other young people for entry-level jobs across their businesses nationwide as well as more experienced folks with a variety of skills in human resources, information technology, sales and other fields.

"It's an opportunity we believe will provide a real rich experience for the job seekers in a context where they're already comfortable," said Betty Smith, HP's university recruiting manager for the Americas. "That's what makes it different. Using existing social networking tools like Second Life is taking HP where the candidates already are."

At the same time, recruiters say they're seeking people who are willing to experiment with this new recruiting process.

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