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Did the career fair need to be in-person in the first place?

November 2020 Newsletter

by Andrew Longhofer, OCDA President (2020-2021)

Usually, by June, we would have had our venue and catering booked, we’d be working to register all of our usual employers, and we’d start planning our day-long workshop to prepare students for our career fair. This year, in June, the team planning the Pacific University School of Pharmacy career fair didn’t even know where to start.

Obviously, we weren’t going to have an in-person event—we couldn’t bring 75-100 employer reps together, and we weren’t going to ask 100 students to shake hands with all of them. But, September is still when most of the retail chains hire graduating pharmacy students for community pharmacist jobs.

Three months into the pandemic, we hoped that everyone was comfortable enough using Zoom, so that was how we moved forward. We weren’t constrained by scheduling a physical space, so we spread the fair over two days. Each employer got a 90-minute “booth time,” and after a brief buffer period, another employer would rotate in.

Students were free to drop in as their interest led them. We also used the breakout room feature to replace our on-campus interviews. Preparation materials were delivered in a flipped classroom model—instead of an all-day in-person session, we offered interview prep, CV and cover letter writing, and career fair networking strategies presentations and information about participating employers to students through our online learning management system, and we were able to track and require participation for students participating in "on-campus" interviews.

Without the pressure to travel, we were able to reach out to employers and residency programs far beyond the immediate Portland area—for the first time, we were able to include residency programs in the Seattle area, employers in Southern Oregon, and a residency program in Northern California. As a result, were also able to include informational interviews with residency programs, a significant benefit to students who are looking at applying for residencies after graduation.

Perhaps the biggest impact of a virtual career fair was the value proposition for students. We have previously required attendance for all students on rotations in Oregon and Washington; students in Hawaii, Alaska, California, and elsewhere generally couldn't reasonably fly back for a two-day event. In an online setting, all of our students had access to participate. Without the cost of catering and space rental, we were able to offer registration to employers for free, reducing the barrier to entry for the residency programs usually offered by non-profit health systems.

There were some significant challenges—the logistics of scheduling, distributing the correct Zoom links, and finding the personnel to manage six to eight contemporaneous Zoom meetings pushed a lot of the work of planning the fair into the week or two before the fair. Providing troubleshooting and technical help through the very medium that might have been acting up proved to be a struggle. And we had to work a little harder to pull off the improvisation required by the fact that our fair was happening during the peak two days of the wildfire outbreak in Oregon.

Still, the expansion in the number, variety, and geographical range of employers we could involve, the improvements in access to students, and the dramatic budgetary advantages have us seriously considering sticking with the online model—we may never do an in-person career fair again.

How has your organization adjusted your career fair plans in response to the pandemic? How have you changed the ways you support clients look for a job without in-person career fairs available? Join us to talk about planning, preparing participants, and recruiting employers for online career fairs on Wednesday 18 November at noon PST.

The Oregon Career Development Association is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable and educational entity.

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