By Roger Jones
If you wanted to find a job in the olden days you went to the fair - and it wasn't just for a ride on the dodgem cars. These were hiring fairs to which employers would come in order to recruit staff for the coming year - and many were held at Michaelmas, at the end of September.
Job seekers would line up armed with a sign of their trade. A blacksmith would sport a horseshoe in his cap, a shepherd would have a crook, a cook a wooden spoon, and a housemaid a mop - hence the name "mop fair" which you still find in parts of England.
The wheel has now turned full circle and hiring fairs are back in fashion - only these days they are called careers or jobs fairs. And the boot is on the other foot. It is the employers who set up their stalls and wait for the jobseekers.
This means that you can leave your mop, quill pen, stethoscope or any other emblem of your trade at home. However, it is not a bad idea to print out copies of your CV and take it along with you just in case you are asked for details about yourself.
However, don't expect to leave the fair with an employment contract in your hand. Your main purpose in going to a jobs fair should be to find out about job opportunities and make contact with the people involved in recruitment.
Careers fairs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are fairly local and cater mainly for school and college leavers. You often find that these are sponsored by local newspapers. While some of these may provide information on higher level jobs, your best plan is to look further afield to graduate job fairs.
These tend to be held in London and larger regional centres such as Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh. They are often organised in association with national dailies, such as the Guardian and the Times, and university careers offices. The websites www.gradjobs.co.uk and www.jobsceneuk.co.uk provide useful information, as do www.society.guardian.co.uk or www.forum3.co.uk for job fairs specialising in the social work and charity sectors.
The great advantage in attending such an event is that you have a large number of companies and organisations under one roof and can cover a lot of ground in a short time. Another is that you can have face to face meetings with people you would normally only meet after submitting an application form and chat to them about employment matters in a friendly, informal manner.
Large job fairs can be somewhat intimidating, and you may be uncertain where to start. To make the best use of your time it is best to obtain a list of exhibitors at the start - or, even better, try to get a list before the event. Tick the ones you don't want to miss.
At the same time keep an open mind, and as you walk around the stands encountering the kind of jobs and firms you had never heard of, be prepared to indulge in a little idle curiosity. Although you may wonder if your skills are relevant, bear in mind that in the course of your career you have gained a number of transferable skills which you can deploy in a far wider range of situations than you realise.
Although job fairs can be relatively informal events, don't be informal yourself. T-shirt and jeans are definitely out: you need to dress smartly as first impressions count. And in order to derive the maximum benefit from your discussions have some sensible and relevant questions up your sleeve. Here are a few for starters:
What kind of experience do you require?
What qualifications are you looking for?
How many people are you planning to recruit this year?
What opportunities do you offer for CPD (continuous personal development)?
Do you have any job information packs?
Who should I apply to and are there any application deadlines?
Do you organise open days?
You will get more of an insider's view if you focus on the person you are talking to. People often enjoy talking about their own experiences and may open up if you ask them what motivated them to take their current career path, how their career has progressed, what they particularly like (or dislike) about the job, and what plans they have for the future.
The more popular careers fairs can get very busy as the day progresses, so it is sensible to arrive early if possible before the rush starts. Recruiters will be fresher at the beginning of the day and may be willing to spend more time with you. Also you will have time to fit in extras such as presentations by exhibitors and job hunting seminars which are becoming a feature of careers fairs.
As I mentioned before, don't expect to go home with a job offer in your pocket. But attending a job fair can often help to focus the mind and stimulate you to consider your options. Autumn - just after Michaelmas - is a particularly good time for careers events, so perhaps you should take time out and go to the fair.
To view the Top Ten Tips for attending Careers Fairs, please click here.