“They’re Selling Themselves, Too” — Eavesdropping at Fall Career Days
I make my way across campus on Tuesday afternoon, looking for telltale signs. I come upon them first near the Natatorium: figures in charcoal and black, walking alone, oddities in the pedestrian flow of their peers in shorts, jeans, and sweatshirts. The ones on their way up carry leather-bound portfolios under suit-jacketed arms; the ones on the way back carry cheap fabric bags adorned with corporate logos.
I have found the pipeline. This must be the way to the career fair.
* * *
Officially, it’s Fall Career Days, one of those rites of passage that reminds you of the uniqueness of life on a huge college campus. There are other, more focused recruiting events—everything from agricultural jobs to supply chain and IST—but twice each academic year, the Bryce Jordan Center hosts hundreds of employers and many more students looking to find the perfect match of job and candidate. The three-day fall fair runs Tuesday through Thursday this week, with Tuesday specified as “non-technical full-time recruiting day.” (Wednesday’s fair is geared toward internships; Thursday is for technical majors.) Translation: Tuesday is mostly seniors, looking to nail down a job before they graduate in December or May.
I’m looking for sights and sounds, which is way less stressful than looking for a job.
On the way into the BJC, I catch snippets of phone conversations, students who have been through it and are on their way home. It’s not hard to imagine every one of these kids calling their parents on the way out the door.
“I’m just coming back from the career fair. (Pause) It’s where you go to get a job.”
“I think I did okay … I think I did okay.”
“It’s like you try to sell yourself to them, and they’re selling themselves to you, too.”
On entering, there’s a registration table, where Heather Baruch-Bueter ’06, a student and alumni relations coordinator in liberal arts, keeps an eye on incoming traffic. Like me, Heather was a communications major, and neither of us have any experience with these giant career fairs. But she gives me a list of all the companies in attendance and sends me in the right direction.
Appropriately, the format requires students to be self-sufficient. They swipe their ID cards to check in, grab a list of companies, and then they’re on their own. About half of the arena’s upper concourse is taken up with tables, maybe 30 of them, while the real crowd, with something close to 100 companies, is down on the main arena floor. The individual locations are little more than variations on a theme: A table. A couple of chairs. Some sort of portable signage. A recruiter, or two, or three, ready with brochures and (usually) a collection of cheap schwag, most of it adorned with those corporate logos.
A partial schwag list: Little rubber submarines, from a company called Bechtel, which appears to be involved in building submarines; little red-and-white stuffed dogs from Target; fortune cookies from Panda Express; Doritos (so many bags of Doritos…) from PepsiCo, which has a prime lot at the end of one of the aisles down on the arena floor. (Later, I hear kids marveling at Pepsi’s real estate. It is impressive.) More generically, there are sunglasses and water bottles and candy and mints and mini soccer balls and tissues and pen (so many pens…) and lots and lots of those cheap fabric bags, which if nothing else give attending students something to carry their schwag home in.
* * *
Just as the quality of the schwag varies, so too do the company presentations. I spend a few minutes talking to Melissa from TMNA, a company that provides behind-the-scenes services for the insurance industry. “We don’t even have a front-facing website,” she says. Similarly, her booth offers minimal curb appeal, and the fact that none of these students have probably heard of TMNA or have any idea what it does explains why Melissa isn’t getting much traffic. Not 20 feet away, the IBM booth has three or four recruiters, all of them engaged with students, while another half dozen wait patiently for their turn.
Even here, where companies aren’t trying to move product, branding and marketing play a role. Sometimes that’s about what the company is; other times, it’s about what that company would like to be. The guys from Foot Locker pair their dark suits with day-glo Nikes. The Mellon BNY table features iPads mounted on cool little stands into which students can enter their relevant information, before receiving a card that directs them to a Penn State-specific website where they can keep up with job opportunities. The Clorox signage includes lots of green in its logo and plays up its Burt’s Bees line, but probably inevitably, the area still sort of smells like bleach.
Some of the contrasts are striking. The Philadelphia office of the DEA sent a couple of guys right out of central casting, tough, serious-looking men who I try (and fail) to joke with. Two spots down, the Abercrombie & Fitch booth appears to be staffed by actual models. In both cases, the implied message—about who they are, and who they’re looking to hire—is clear. Then there’s Daversa Partners, a search firm whose sign reads “Recruiting the Unrecruitable.” I have no clue what that means.
* * *
The good news? People are hiring. That includes the federal prison at Lewisburg, aka The Big House, which has famously housed a number of high-profile mob figures. I’m guessing it’s not a particularly friendly place, but Jeff, the recruiter here on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, could not be a nicer guy. They’re looking for corrections officers, most of whom these days come in with a college degree. Various uniformed and public services are represented here, from prisons to the military to local police forces. I’m tempted to tell the officer at the Montgomery County PD booth to loosen up a bit, thinking his serious gaze and the pistol and taser on his belt might explain why I don’t see anyone approaching his table. But I let it go.
Meanwhile, business is booming at the American Eagle Outfitters table just across the aisle from the MCPD, and not just because of the prime schwag: free shirts and scarves. The recruiters wear intentionally faded jeans, colorful flannels, and flip-flops, exactly the sort of carefully coordinated casual look they sell in their stores. It’s sort of funny in context, surrounded as they are by suit-clad job hunters not much younger than they; one of the AE reps, Kirk Yogan ’07, tells me it’s no act. “In our headquarters, this is how we dress. I could talk to our CEO dressed like this.”
It’s not hard to figure out why your average 22-year-old marketing or supply-chain major would love to work at a place like that.
* * *
On the way out, I ask a couple of students for their impressions. Friends Sam and Kelly are debriefing after making the rounds; Sam, a senior HDFS major, is wearing a basic black suit and white shirt, while Kelly, also a senior and an econ major, opted for a black dress—the sort you might wear to a really nice dinner. It’s Sam’s first time through the career fair, and she admits “it was a little bit scary at first.”
Kelly is a veteran. “This is my third or fourth one,” she says, and her prior experience is why she went with a “fashion-y” outfit instead of the standard suit. “Otherwise, it’s really hard to stand out.” Neither has a job offer yet, but both are sure it was worthwhile.
I walk out with Kevin, an accounting major who says he talked to 15 companies, “10-to-12 of which were worthwhile.” Not all of them are hiring, but even then, he says, “it’s worth talking to people, just to get information, see what they’re looking for.” Like 98 percent of the rest of the guys I run across, Kevin keeps it basic: Black suit, white shirt, conservative red tie. I ask him how long he’s had the suit.
“About a year.”
I’m asking, I say, because I’m guessing a lot of people are wearing brand-new suits, bought just for this career fair.
“Oh, no. I bought it for last year’s career fair.” And then he’s on his way.
Ryan Jones, senior editor