When Kurt Bland first sought a full-time job after college, he went to a career day in Mississippi.
While he eventually would return to manage Bland Landscaping, the company his parents started when he was an infant, he wanted to leave North Carolina after graduation because he desired experience at a company that wasn’t owned by his family.
He thinks about this each time he attends or hosts a career fair. He’s looking for prospective new employees who approach these events similarly to how he did right out of school. Bland likens the process of handling a career fair properly to dating. Finding the right fit, whether it’s a significant other or a company, comes down to thoughtfulness.
“If you want to get a date with a quality person and you’re really trying to establish a relationship with them, you’re not going to call them on Friday or hit them up on Tinder and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing in three hours?’” Bland says. “You’re going to be building some friendly rapport and learning about that person, and then making that ask. I think recruiting and even a career fair is kind of the same way.”
Career fairs can help you land a job with a company that fits your interests, or they can be a waste of your time and efforts. Those who have been on the other side of the recruiting booth offer their advice on how to make sure your job-hunting experience is a positive one.
THE IDEAL CANDIDATE.
Bland says professional attire and a smile go a long way, but there’s more to it than that.
“My go-to (question) is, ‘What are you hoping to learn?” says Lisa Hall, employee development and program manager at Yellowstone Landscape. “Is it field work? Is it design? Is it management? We can tuck them into a specific department and help them experience those things. I just don’t want to hear, ‘I don’t know.’”
Milosi Landscaping’s Carynell Carlton says an experienced candidate is noteworthy, and students should be able to discuss some of their previous work. An impressive resume is memorable, and Carlton says the last time Milosi hired somebody right out of school, the candidate was able to show what he had learned outside of the classroom on his resume. His portfolio felt out-of-the-box, and he had pursued clients beyond classwork.
“Experience is just going to be just so extremely important,” Carlton says. “We don’t mind taking people who have minimal to no experience and bringing them up, but you have a better chance (of) landing a position you’re looking for if you have more experience.”
Interviewers also want to hear about your passions, but Carlton says she’s looking for people who tend to be environmentally conscious. Time spent with a leadership coach or class can’t hurt, she adds. Hall also says a passion for being outdoors will help, as will more physical hobbies like rock climbing and hunting, which show a willingness to put in hard work.
Keeping all that in mind, being yourself is most important. Career fairs can be intimidating, but Hall says you should calm down before you even walk through the door. Answering questions honestly helps companies find candidates they like, but it also helps you figure out if the place you’re talking with will be a good fit.
“Students need to know when they’re at a career fair, they need to relax and be themselves,” Hall says. “Experience and skills are important, but we’re looking at behavior. Is this person going to show up to work every day? Is their team going to be able to rely on them? We’re trying to get to know them.”
Within 30 seconds of initial interaction, Bland says he can tell whether or not you’re actually interested in his company. He says sometimes people go to fairs for the social component or because they’re forced to, not because they’re trying to find a job. With so many people to sift through before the day ends, he can only spend so much time trying to figure out if you’re interested.
“You’ve got to stand out from the students who are just window shopping,” Bland says. “There’s nothing more frustrating than to have somebody just sitting there talking to you and they have no intent to seek employment.”
Bring resumes, cover letters and portfolios – that’s critical. Bland also recommends doing research on some of the companies that are going to be at the career fair. Knowing where the businesses are located is important, but what could help you stand out is being able to ask a few questions about some of their previous projects.
Carlton also says showing you’re interested in working your way up through a long-term career path is important, too, because many interviewees say they want leadership positions but aren’t qualified yet. Knowing what it will take to get to that point is important research to have but expecting those higher-paying positions right away might be misguided.
“It’s not just a summer job,” Carlton says. “Instead of wanting to work their way up to office jobs, what they’re wanting to do is immediately come in and make $60,000 a year and they don’t have the experience we’re looking for. We have a good economy that’s going on right now, so people look at labor positions as if it’s beneath them.”
THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.
Hall says career fairs are conversations, not formal interviews, so you should have some questions ready to ask recruiters. She says asking about company culture shows you care about workplace environment, plus it helps you determine if you’d like working at that company.
Asking somebody what they love or would change about the job is effective, as is asking about what an average shift might look like. If you’re not attracted to the company after hearing the answers, it’s still good information because your own interests may change.
“Even though a company may not look like it’s the place for them right now, you never know in the future, three, five, 10 years down the road, that the company might have a position that you’re interested in,” Hall says.
Carlton says inquiries about starting salary are important, but candidates should also ask about benefits like insurance and retirement plans, plus paid time off and overtime opportunities.
“You can make a lot of money and be miserable, but you can also make a little bit of money but just be so happy,” Carlton says. “Landscaping companies are starting to understand that people want to be treated as such: people. It’s not just a pat on the back or a thank you card. They should look for a company that does offer some sort of medical benefits, a good vacation or time off plan because that’s good for mental health.”