It never fails. I’m at a job fair looking for high-performing, motivated professionals to place into great opportunities with our Fortune 500 client companies. Yet I walk away every time shaking my head in disbelief at how many seasoned officers and NCOs blow their chance to get hired.
Here are five fatal mistakes most military job seekers make at career fairs, and how you can avoid making them:
1. You Have No Idea Why You’re Here
Most folks think the key to job fair success is to “dress smartly and bring lots of resumes.” Well, what if I told you that you don’t go to job fair to get a job? To go a little further, DON’T BRING ANY RESUMES!!!
You’re probably a little shocked right now, because this flies against everything you’ve been told in your transition. I’ll ease your inner conflict and tell you that job fairs are an absolute must on your to do list, but not for the reasons you think. (As for the resume thing, we’ll get to that in a bit.)
One of the critical first steps of your job search strategy is to have a targeted list of companies. Before you invest your time and money to attend a job fair, you must have a sense of what industries and companies can utilize your skill sets and have opportunities in your geographic preferences.
Many folks disregard the smaller companies they’ve never heard of before. This is a HUGE mistake! You should actually target and start off with the smaller companies. Why? Well, let’s get to the basics of business. Job fairs cost a lot in terms of money and time away from the office. If a smaller company is willing to invest that level of commitment and resources to a job fair, it’s far more likely they have an immediate vacancy they’re trying to fill. Even better, there’s a very high probability that a hiring decision-maker will be present at the booth.
Another mistake many job seekers make at a job fair? They wait in the long lines at the front of the fair to speak with the “big box” employers. Instead, be smart and start at the physical rear of the job fair and work your way forward. Here’s the strategy behind this: Some of us recruiters don’t want to pay the big bucks to get the prime real estate at the front. We’re typically twiddling our thumbs, because everyone is bottlenecked up there. Your reward for taking this approach is that you get more one-on-one interaction time, while your less-informed competition is wasting precious networking opportunities standing in line to talk to someone who generally doesn’t have any authority to hire them. Your win.
You may be wondering why I said you weren’t at a job fair to get a job. Well, your reason to attend a job fair is to grow your professional network. (Click here to tweet this thought.) If, in the process, a genuine connection is made, that’s serendipity at work and you’ve become the one-in-a-million job fair hire story. Always remember this so you stay focused on your reason for being at the event.
2. You Can’t Tell Me What You Can Do for Me
Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re watching TV, and a commercial comes on that looks like a resume (and sounds like one, too). How long would it take for you to change the channel? Likewise, you have about 10-15 seconds to give me a reason to continue listening to you. You have to craft your elevator speech towards the positions you know my company is typically hiring for, while at the same time expressing how your skills match.
And please don’t give me the “I’m a transitioning…yada yada.” That tells me that you haven’t done anything with your elevator speech since you practiced it in a transition course, and it “sounded good” to someone who has never hired or placed someone in years — or possibly ever. There’s no substitute for hard work here. That’s why focus is important.
In 2013, in the age of smartphones, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to tell me about what my company does and how you can add value to my clients and customers. You should be seizing on the opportunity to use all of your branch of service’s outplacement resources to test drive your elevator speech before you even get to a job fair. Those professionals will provide you with frank, candid feedback. Trust me, your friends and family will tell you that your elevator speech sounds great, but my fellow recruiters and I have to mentally check out when you tell us you’re a “leader” and that you can “manage.”
We recruiters don’t like dealing with generalities. So, how do you engage our attention? Lead off with your technical skills — such as your degree, certifications and hard skills — before you even think about talking about the transferable ones. Take it from me, save sharing your transferable skills until I’m really interested and ask you to elaborate a little more about yourself after your 10-second promo. Please don’t wing your elevator speech. If you do, you’re likely to be tuned out.
3. Are You TRULY Ready to Transition?
Ditch the uniform, already! I know this may rub some the wrong way, but if you’ve read my other posts, you already know I’m here to give you information that works, not flatter your ego.
I’m pretty confident that you’re trying to make a good impression, but here’s why a uniform is a bad idea: Employers want to envision you as a part of their team. Also, wearing your uniform may sink your job search ship before it even sets sail. One reason is that you risk being perceived as unprepared.
Which demonstrates more effort? Simply putting on a service dress uniform or donning an interview-ready suit? Believe it or not, I see many candidates treat the job fair as some type of marginal event where they think a uniform or slacks and a shirt are “good enough.” The lesson here is that I ALWAYS remember the candidates with the polished, professional image.
Another reason not to wear the uniform is that it allows the prospective employer to disqualify you before even hearing your elevator speech. Recruiters who are fellow veterans can immediately tell by looking at your uniform whether or not you’re retiring, how much salary you’re currently making (i.e., whether they can afford you or not), and some have even said it creates doubt as to whether or not you’re truly ready to hang the uniform up.
4. You Sound Like the Other 200+ People I Spoke with Today
A very good friend of mine is also a recruiter. I walked up to her once during a job fair we were both attending, and her immediate response was, “How can I help you?” She’d become so “punch drunk” by the hundreds of job seekers who’d walked up to her that day that she barely recognized me by the time I stopped by.
If your approach is along the lines of, “Here’s my degree and my military experience; now you figure out if I’m a good fit (then hire and train me),” you’re in effect saying “me, me, me” all day long. (Hint: This is NOT a good thing.)
Now, I know firsthand, having facilitated the Transition GPS Course, that the instructors explicitly stress that this “me, me, me” technique is the worst way to work a job fair. But I guess the vast majority of graduates think they don’t have to give much thought about how to differentiate themselves from the standard job seeker. How do you accomplish this?
You can do this by extending your hand, giving a firm handshake and telling me your name. Then ask mine. Then ask me briefly what my actual position is with the company, as I may not even be a recruiter. Once that’s out of the way, acknowledge the fact that my time is precious, hit me with your 10-second elevator speech and ask if your skills are a match for my company. (Which should be “yes,” if you’ve done your homework and identified the companies that are a good fit for you.)
If you’re told “no” or “apply on our website,” don’t take offense; it effectively gives you honest feedback that you haven’t stimulated enough interest. Instead, ask the person what type of folks the company typically hires, so that if you have any sharp people in your network, you can refer them. Trust me, the quickest way to stay in a recruiter’s or hiring decision-maker’s mind is to send exceptional candidates their way. Once your conversation has ended, thank them graciously with a smile, ask if they have a business card and determine if it’s OK to email them.
Once you leave the job fair with all of your new contacts, email each of them and use the subject line “Thanks…and a cup of coffee?” Thank them in your message for the time they took to speak with you, and offer to meet in future to learn more about what they do and the company. I can tell you that 95% of the people at job fairs will not do this.
But you should also take it a step further. In the email, note that you saw the person’s LinkedIn profile and ask if it’s OK to connect with them on there. You can also look that person up on Twitter and start following them (if they have a professional profile). Because two out of three job seekers are effectively using all three big social media sites to find their next job, many less-qualified people are getting hired as a result of more-qualified candidates still stuck in the “resume & cover letter” age.
Just by adding one person, such as me, to your network, you’ve increased your professional contacts by over one million connections. (Connect with me now, and let me know that you read this post.)
5. You’re Downright Scared to Talk Salary
Hopefully, you already have an idea of what you need to know about salary and are prepared to have some answers when asked.
You may try deflecting or redirecting when I ask you “How much are you looking to make?” by saying something along the lines of “I’m more interested in learning more about the job…” But understand that you’re essentially speed dating at the job fair. Most companies are aware of their current needs and have to determine whether or not you’re going to be a match for those positions in terms of skills, location and salary.
Your answer to the salary question shows us how prepared you are, because it shows you understand the norms for the company or the industry and location. I often chuckle inside when I ask the money question and a job seeker’s answer has nothing to do with the position’s range, but is strictly in tune with what that person is making in terms of their military salary. Once again, the fatally flawed thinking of “me, me, me.”
Just like the popular dating sites out there, we recruiters are truly trying to match you up with your skills, location and salary preferences to create a win-win situation. But understand that, at the end of the day, all of us are specialists looking to fill very specific positions, so don’t get annoyed or frustrated if there isn’t a match. Instead, say to yourself, “There isn’t a match today,” and use it to your advantage by making us your wingman. That way, if we do come across someone who’s looking for a candidate with your background, you’re the first person we think of.
One Final Thought and Suggestion
Remember when I told you not to bring a resume to a job fair? Well, if after your elevator speech and subsequent conversation you’ve really connected with us and we ask you for it, offer to email it to us recruiters. Better yet, for hiring decision-makers, send it via FedEx or UPS with tracking, then call about 30 minutes after you get the delivery notification. That’s how you leave a game-changing and job-creating impression.
Have your eyes been opened to any job fair mistakes you’ve been making? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!