The New Breed of Career Fair-Goers

The job pool is extremely competitive … and its waters might just be filled with blood.

The new breed of college graduates is a different animal. If you haven't met them yet, your eventual confrontation could be an intense one.

At a few minutes after 10, the doors were opened and from there it was a flood — a three hour-long deluge of awkward hellos, business card and resume exchanges, and intense questioning. The job fair was set up in a gymnasium on a small university campus, and the latest crop of would-be professionals moved around the floor with more athletic agility than would have been thought possible in business attire. The employers' booths were arranged in a large ring around the edges of a gymnasium, and inside that was a smaller one that made it easier for the fair-goers to circle and circle until there was a clear opening on either side to strike.

They pretended to wait politely for several minutes a few feet behind their fellow grads as they visited with the various employer representatives. But once a conversation ended, another graduate would pounce.

“I’m Ellen,” one young lady said – without hello – in a tone that was notable not for politeness, but for its veiled threat. I had my back turned to take a drink to sooth my vocal cords. I waited for her to continue with “ … pay attention to me or else I’ll hurt you badly.” But instead there was silence and I eventually responded in the most congenial way I believe I’ve ever said hello to a stranger so slight of size.

This was my third career fair at my alma mater, each one becoming more and more competitive as the job market shrinks. This one came amidst the Occupy Wall Street movement, as people organize nationwide to protest a host of issues, including student loan amounts and the corresponding lack of job possibilities. I like to attend this fair every fall to help out fellow alumnus and to meet the students who are taking some of the classes I enjoyed at a time that was a bit more careless than my life is now. They are learning from the same instructors I treasured, who made such an impact on me and my career, and the campus when the leaves turn is a stunning sight.

In the past, it’s been a pleasure to chat with them and catch up on what’s been happening on campus. On the drive in, for example, I noticed some major enhancements to the science center and the construction of a new quad next door to the journalism building. The grads were not interested in talking about these topics. There wasn’t time.

This new crop of students who know how desperate the job market is was too busy promoting their personal blogs, inquiring seriously about paid positions, weighing the option of taking another unpaid internship or not to make themselves appear attractive to employers, and asking whether or not our company was hiring. Apparently some companies come to campus with the intent of branding their organization, but not posing any real opportunities for the employing the graduates.

I pity those poor companies. If they survived those previous career fairs, then I’d say they were fortunate to escape – to be set free. I’d also guess they will not likely be on the career fair circuit again until some spots in their companies come open.

We saw the usual mixture of applicants. The sharp, the clueless, the ones who could be sharp, and mostly the ones who fit somewhere in the middle. The sharp ones had researched our company and made it appear as though we were the only organization present they were considering. They could talk about our company’s culture, its clients, its purpose, and so on. And there were others who asked us to tell them to describe our company, though they claimed to be real students of our field. I spoke with them all with the usual mixture of adulation and sorrow.

In the day’s most original moment, a young gentleman walked up and asked my colleague and I, “What are you selling?” Initially I was taken aback, but then I realized that might have been the most philosophical question posed to us. The only unfortunate part was, as creative as his approach, he was looking for a job in a field entirely unrelated to our work.

By 1 o’clock, it was over. An entire school’s optimistic graduates, soon-to-be-graduates and internship seekers had made the rounds. Many of the other companies had torn down their booths (or perhaps it had been done for them) and had already gone while there was still a line at ours. We stayed until every last person had been heard from. We’d managed to find a few prospects for jobs and internships. We’d also managed to find a new perspective.

The labor force is tightening and incoming graduates must be more polished than they’ve ever been. Even the ones who understand that might not succeed. A great deal of success has to do with timing, with chance, with who you know, and it makes those of us who have found good work all the more appreciative for having escaped the frightening unknown.

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