So, When Do I Start?

Steve Magner looks around the ballroom. He's the worst-dressed guy in the joint. Under a grudging necktie, his top shirt button is open. His blazer would get him tossed out of a used-car salesmen's convention. His beat-up cargo pants puddle on his beat-up bucks.

Magner looks at the hiring companies' banners. Where to start? Allied Signal?

Geico? Raytheon? Whatever. He slouches off to hand out résumés.

Steve Magner is actually me in disguise. Not that it was too much of a stretch to dress like a slob.

Computerworld recently got to wondering about information technology job fairs.

In the Internet age, do they count for much?

Some say they add valuable face-to-face time for both prospect and hiring company. Others scoff and say they're mere cattle calls, staffed by human resources people who can't possibly evaluate candidates' IT skills. Job seekers' résumés, these critics say, simply wind up in the to-be-scanned pile.

We couldn't find any IT workers who seemed especially fond of job fairs.

Still, according to a recent Computerworld survey, 10% of all IT workers are hired through recruiting events. That's way behind the leading tool - employee referrals, at 25% - but it's fourth on the list, ahead of search agencies (8%) and paid Internet recruiting services (also 8%). People use these fairs.

There are, of course, different kinds of IT recruiting events. You've got your campus fairs, where students are glad-handed and rushed just as they were during Greek Week. And you've got your single-company fairs, where Conglomerate.com opens its doors seeking everything from mail room staff to line-of-business executives.

But we were curious about classic, multicompany fairs put on by outfits such as Westech ExpoCorp and Kaplan Career Services. These companies are the leaders in the run-what-you-brung IT fairs that pop up at hotels all over the country.

Hence the birth of Steve Magner. Who is, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of a loser. No doubt a disappointment to his family. Can't hold a job.

Can't write his way out of a paper bag. Couldn't even be bothered to spell-check his résumé.

He does have one thing going for him: He's an Oracle database administrator with a couple years' experience. These days, an Oracle database administrator - any database administrator - is worth his weight in gold, right? Steve Magner set out to find just how much of a creep an Oracle database administrator could be and still get real interview offers.

That's why Magner is at a Kaplan career fair, in a ballroom, in a place called Martin's Crosswinds (described by one local cynic as a "wedding factory") in Greenbelt, Md. You know how he's dressed. It's not unfair to add that he could use a shave.

Oh, and his résumé stinks.

Getting Lucky

Among IT workers, job fairs have a mixed reputation. They "remind me of singles bars," says one anonymous IT source.

Many job seekers suspect that some advertised jobs don't exist at all - that the point is to capture attendees' résumés and then bug them with irrelevant job pitches for months, even years to come.

Job seekers' biggest complaint is that they would like to meet fellow engineers at job fairs. That way, they could evaluate a recruiting company's IT staff and decide whether they're intrigued by its technology environment. Instead, they are beset by human resources people whom many hold in, er, less than high regard.

"The trick to finding a job in this business is to bypass the jerks that populate personnel departments," says John Miano, chief engineer at Colosseum Builders Inc., a Summit, N.J., software services company for the entertainment industry. Miano estimates he's been on 75 job interviews. At career fairs, he says, "the only people you are likely to see are personnel people."

Even IT workers with higher regard for human resources would rather gab with engineers. According to Clint Byrum, now a software consultant at Monterey, Calif.-based CorporaTech Inc., job-fair recruiters "are generally a mixture of ... top-notch recruiting types and top-level engineers. Unfortunately, the recruiters probably outnumber the engineers 3-to-1."

Memo to IT recruiters: To make a good impression on job seekers, drag a carload of actual engineers to the next career fair.

Truth be told, Steve Magner would prefer to talk with tech-ignorant human resources people right now. Reason: Any reasonably technical question from an engineer is liable to blow his cover. Everything Magner knows about being an Oracle database administrator he learned by scanning a couple of Computerworld stories in the Martin's Crosswinds lobby.

As it turns out, that's enough to get by. There are 20 booths; Magner holds at least a brief conversation at most of them and is never unmasked.

Interestingly, the software engineers who staff three or four of the booths are no more likely to ask tough questions than the human resources types.

Of course, not being exposed as a fraud is hardly the same as knocking 'em dead. Magner's attire causes many hiring reps' gazes to harden (one woman actually winces). And some who scan the résumé, with its poor writing and obvious job-hopping, get that No Sale look in their eyes even while Magner tries to schmooze them.

But most want to know when he can start. He is asked, over and over, about experience, salary range and availability. And he is peppered with sales pitches on company benefits. Only Mani Persaud, human resources manager at an Arlington, Va.-based company called Advanced Systems Development Inc., grills Magner. Persaud wants to know about certification ... about specific recent projects ... about other technical proficiencies.

Magner's collar, buttoned or not, begins to feel tight. He beats a hasty retreat.

Do You, Do You, Do You Wanna Dance?

David Foote of Foote Partners LLC, a New Canaan, Conn.-based analyst group, voices the Big Fear about job fairs - the fear that hiring companies are too polite to discuss. "Who shows up at these things?" Foote asks. "These days, the good people have a way of being found."

While "not a big fan" of job fairs, Foote recognizes their value. "They offer this face-to-face contact," he says, that Internet recruiting can't. He says the top reason organizations lose IT workers in their first 12 months is that they're "so excited to fill a particular skill that they don't think about the person." The career fair's face-to-face meeting, Foote says, can help companies avoid this problem.

Recruiters say they fill all sorts of positions, including very high-level ones, at these events. "We look for managers, testers, developers, the works," says Susan P. Lane, Arlington, Va.-based manager of IS recruitment and staffing at Bell Atlantic Corp., which does a great deal of job-fair recruiting ("We did three this week," a tired Lane says).

"One nice thing [about a career fair] is that you never know" who you'll find there, agrees Jim Gattuso, mid-Atlantic regional staffing manager at Raytheon Co. "We've hired recent college grads all the way up to high-level people."

What do recruiters look for in a job-fair prospect? About what you'd expect.

"Have a 30-second synopsis of yourself," Gattuso says. This quick story, also in vogue among capital-hungry entrepreneurs, is called the "elevator speech."

"You must be able to quickly summarize what you've done and what you want to do," he says. "Don't just mosey around," adds Lane. "Know what you're looking for and sell yourself."

Gattuso, Lane and analysts agree that job-fair attendees should do the following:

-- Research the companies that will be at the fair.

-- Dress professionally.

-- Be prepared to tell recruiters what kind of pay you want. Make sure it's reasonable for the job and the region.

-- Rehearse your elevator speech.

-- Bring enough résumés. (Lane says you wouldn't believe how many people run out.)-- Don't bring your kids. (Gattuso has seen it done.)So LonelyAt the fair, Magner raps with a bunch of fellow lookers. One, a sharp-dressed guy whose English is limited, is chipper. He's landed jobs through fairs like this one before. In fact, he's got a decent position as a LAN manager right now, but he hates his commute ("Thirty-five minutes!" he tells Magner, who doesn't think that sounds too bad at all) and is confident he can find something closer to his Columbia, Md., home.

How does this event stack up to others, Magner asks another guy who looks permanently angry. "'Bout the same," the guy says, gesturing at the booths.

"They all say they love you, then" - shrug - "no calls."

Indeed. Two weeks after passing out 20 résumés at the Greenbelt job fair, Steve Magner - job-hopper, slob, fictitious Oracle database administrator - hadn't heard from a single employer. Thumbs up, recruiters.

Ulfelder is a Computerworld features writer. He can be contacted at steve_ulfelder@computerworld.com Steve Magner7 Lincoln St., Framingham MA , 01701 (NOTE: Moving to the Washington, DC area effective Dec. 1, 1999)stevemag_99@yahoo.comDesired Opportunity: A fullfiling, rewarding career at a company that respects the individuals and offers a growth pathLast position: Oracle Data Base administratorSkills: C++, Visual Basic, Oracle 7.3 (OCP), Oracle8, Oracle 8i, SQL, PL/SQLExperience:

International Data Group

Framingham, MA

September 1999 - October 1999

Position/Title: Oracle DBA

Duties: Set up databases, configured server, tuned database engine at major information services companyFuller Road SoftwareWestborough, MAMay 1999 - July 1999Position/Title: Oracle DBADuties: Developed database recovery and backup procedures (my predecessor was incompetent, or so I was told)The Computer ShackMarlboro, Mass.

Dec. 1998 - April 1999

Position/Title: Roving Tech

Duties: Helped local businesses with PC troubleshootingInternational Data GroupFramingham, MASeptember 1994 - Oct. 1998Position/Title: Help Desk TechnicianDuties: Helped end users troubleshoot there PCs.

Johnny Westlake Auto Thrill Group

Amherst, NY

1986-1992

Position/Title: Wall-of-flame specialistDuties: Variety of jobs, including car prep, driving and general daredevil work, in automotive entertainment business specializing in Midwest fairs and sporting eventsEducation:

Kenyon College

Gambier, Ohio

Degree: BA

Class of 1983

Major: Theatre Arts

Minor: Electrical Engineering

Personal: 38 yrs old, enjoy reading, discussion groups, Medieval Faires.

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