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Career Fairs or Career Fairy Tales?

Today’s career fairs seem anything but “fair” to me.

Have you noticed lately how every local TV news report has a weekly segment on a career or job fair? The footage may as well be recycled week after week: the camera pans over a long line wrapping around a corner. Then the reporter (always with surprise and a newsworthy sense of self-importance—almost as if he’s breaking a story as hot as Lewinsky and Clinton) marvels over the record attendance.

Is this really news? My God, half the country is unemployed, and people are lining up thinking they might land a job. Surprise! Someone give that reporter a raise.

My absolute favorite part is when the reporter corners one of the attendees and gets her to talk about how this job seeker plans to stand out from the crowd.

Oh no, wait, this is the best part: then that same person talks on camera about how she’s now begun to make friends in the job fair lines because they all recognize one another from the previous week’s job fair. Hmmm … it might be time to reevaluate that whole “standing out from the crowd” strategy.

Sadly, these unemployed job fair attendees have become like lottery ticket addicts. I think your chances of landing a job at a career fair and winning the jackpot are about the same. The unemployed have become regulars, spending their hours, and then their days, waiting on lines to attend these job fairs.

Sometimes, when the fair is designed for a more upscale crowd, the sponsor will disguise it as a “networking event.” Then there are Speed Job Fairs, which probably have the same success rate of speed dating, I would guess. I even saw one of the big network morning shows holding a job fair. What group is next? Job fairs for the left-handed, job fairs for blondes, job fairs for smokers …

Do you know anybody that has actually landed a job from a career fair? Really, think about it. Do you? If so, I would love to hear from you or them.

Just think, if the same companies paying all this money to present and recruit at these job fairs didn’t go and instead saved the money they spent on the booth, marketing materials, and transportation costs, they would have more money to hire more workers!

America, help me understand: why in the world would any company today need to pay for a booth at a job fair to find employees when there are so many people looking for work? People are sending their resumes to these same companies in droves every day. Can anyone explain this to me? Please email me with your thoughts.

Here’s another gimmick that the sponsors of these fairs are doing: I’ve noticed that today’s job fairs are equal opportunity capitalist (rip-offs). These same companies who pay to solicit at job fairs seem to be bullied into not only showcasing their company at a booth at a “regular” career fair, but also at specialized fairs. Some clever marketing genius created these fairs to be politically correct. I’m sure these are huge revenue makers for the fair creators. They are designed to lure specialized groups of the unemployed: women, African-Americans, the LGBT community, and recent grads. Hmmm … so gay people need their own job fair in order to find a job? What’s the difference between these fairs and a mainstream job fair?

I have also recently noticed that “executive” job fairs (for 100K+ jobs) sometimes masquerade as “networking receptions” or “career fairs” that turn out to be marketing events for an Internet job search site. Hmm, who do you think benefits the most from these fairs? The job seekers? Yeah, right.

Granted, misery loves company, but I’m guessing that the sponsors of these fairs are the only ones making millions. Oh, and also the speakers, and the venue renting out the space. But not the job hunters.

With half of the people in our country are looking for a job, I say nothing should be overlooked, from networking (the most overused word during high unemployment times) and online search engines to—yes—even job fairs. However, these fairs should be taken at face value.

The real trick to make the best use of your time if you’re looking for work? My advice is to approach those companies that don’t appear to be looking. Just like every employee has had a boss that he can’t stand, every boss has an employee she doesn’t like. The boss may not have the nerve to fire that employee until the perfect replacement comes along... and that could be you. So don’t limit your search to those companies that are “looking” - get your resume in front of everyone.

This tip is among fifty secrets in my book Bulletproof Your Job (HarperCollins) to keep your job or find a new one.

Another secret if you’re unemployed is to offer yourself to employers on a “per-project” or “temp” basis (but avoid the word “consultant”). Think about it: “hires” always come down to a decision between two or more final candidates. If you are unemployed and confident you can do the job, you have nothing to lose by taking some pressure off the hiring authority and suggesting that they basically “try you out” for 60 days. Whether the job is entry-level or executive, what hiring manager would not hire a finalist with the option to just try them out, no strings attached? It’s like leasing a car instead of buying! I’m told by readers of my book who have tried this technique that 95 percent of them go on to land a permanent job at the place where they “auditioned” for 60 days. There you go, another secret from my book, Bulletproof Your Job, and my website:

Whether you’re applying for a temporary or permanent position, make sure you have a good resume. I create resumes for job seekers, whether you are a mom returning to work, the over-50 candidate, or even the college senior who wants to get an internship. But unlike the other services out there, a “Bulletproof” resume is not just the paper, it is the process. Your resume comes with two personal phone consultations with me, Stephen Viscusi, before and after I do the resume. But enough advertising: this is a column, not a commercial.

Sure, my strategies for landing a job are a bit gimmicky.

As I tell you in my book, during a recession, you need an extra edge to separate you from the other final candidates—gimmick or not.