Today the transitioning military job seeker, and reserve component service member, is faced with a bewildering array of voices saying they want to help hire military. It can be overwhelming to figure out where to begin when looking for that first civilian career. Job fairs can be a good place to start.
Most active-duty military installations host job fairs a few times a year for the transitioning population. These hiring events are either run by the installation transition program or by a third-party organization. These events are a good way to get your feet wet and offer some exposure to national and local opportunities, in one place.
Having attended a large variety of military job fairs throughout the United States in the course of my civilian career as a recruiter for various organizations; a few tips come to mind for someone taking the plunge for the first time.
What to wear
Most employers have the reasonable expectation that they will see uniformed service members at a military job fair. We hear different transition offices advising for or against wearing a uniform at a job fair, but it’s really up to you. If you don’t have time to change into civilian clothes, or you don’t know what to wear yet, then go ahead and attend wearing the local uniform of the day.
If you already have that interview suit ready to go and want to try it out, go ahead. What we would advise against is wearing the same clothes that you would choose to sit on your couch and watch the game in. Appearances matter when you meet a prospective employer: Look like you are taking your job search seriously and that you care. Just like you learned in your initial training, keep it neat, clean, and serviceable. Wear what you would think to wear for an important occasion like a graduation or a retirement ceremony. Business casual is fine. For men, that typically means slacks, dress shoes with a matching belt, and a collared shirt. You can add a sport coat or sweater if you like. For women, that means pants and a blouse or a conservative-length skirt with closed-toed shoes.
What to say
About the worst thing you can do at a job fair is walk up to an employer and say, “What do you have for me” as your form of introduction. If you are unable to research the attending companies ahead of time and you want to find out more about someone, simply approach the representative, shake his or her hand, and introduce yourself. For example: “Hi, I’m Will, nice to meet you. Can you tell me a little about what you are looking for today?” From there, you will get the information you want and the representative can quickly align you with opportunities that are appropriate for you. You will also impress this person because so few job seekers actually say this.
If you are interested in an employer, show them. Ask how you can follow up with questions such as:
“What’s the best way to find out more about this opportunity?”
“What is the interview process like?”
Questions like these indicate that you are interested and want to be informed.
Avoid using a service-connected disability or VA disability rating as a selling point when meeting an employer. Focus on your strengths and background instead.
Often you will encounter company representatives who don’t know what they’re hiring for in the local area and are just telling everyone, “Apply online and we’ll go from there.” This can get frustrating, but take heart because a lot of genuinely invested employers will also attend these events. It’s not always recruiters, either. Often, you will encounter actual hiring managers who took time out of their work week to travel to an installation and meet service members face to face. If you meet some of these individuals, do yourself a favor and take the time to ask for their cards and information about following up. Pay attention to what they have to say and show enthusiasm if you are interested in some of the companies’ roles.
In the age of applicant tracking systems and internet-based recruiting, the most valuable ally you can have on your side is a current employee or hiring manager at a company you are interested in. They can help pull you out of the bucket of thousands of applicants and get an actual person to look at your resume and application, which overcomes your biggest obstacle at this point in your career search.
If you have a conversation with a company representative and you like what he or she has to say, feel free to ask for advice. If you aren’t sure what your resume should look like, or if you don’t know how to make yourself stand out yet, ask employers who you meet for their feedback. Most people want to help, and these individuals are on the front line of the hiring process for the companies that want to hire in your local area. What they have to say can really boost your success rate when trying to get your foot in the door for a new opportunity.
Almost every table you visit at a job fair will be handing out promotional material of some sort. You can end up with a pile of squeeze toys, lip balm, stickers and key chains. In other words, a mess. I highly recommend that when you leave a vendor's table, take five minutes before you do anything else to jot down some notes about your conversation with the representative. It’s easy to get job fair conversations jumbled up after spending hours talking with different employers and these notes will keep you focused.
It’s a good idea to send professional emails to the people you met at the job fair with your resume attached and a quick note describing why you specifically liked their opportunity. This reintroduces you to an employer and makes it easy for them to forward your resume to a colleague.
See job fairs for what they are: A way to meet employers that are hiring and start networking. View every experience as an opportunity to learn and improve on yourself as a career professional. This is one of the first steps to get into a hiring process. Don’t expect to get hired on the spot, but don’t blow a potential opportunity by not being prepared. You are responsible for your own success.