Make the most of careers fairs

Transcript of podcast episode with Phill Williams from Careers Network

Cate: We are joined today by Phill. Phill is one of our Careers Consultants here in Careers Network. Phill works for the College of Life and Environmental Sciences. Hello, Phill! Welcome!  

So, what we wanted to talk about with you, Phill, is what students can do to make the most of the Careers Fairs. So, we've got several Careers Fairs coming up. We've got our Autumn Fairs is our first one starting on the 5th October and that's our main Career Fair. We've also got our Engineering and Physical Sciences Fair. We've got our Business, Finance and Consultancy Fair. We've got a Law Fair and then we've also got a Virtual Fair. So, there is really something for every student, and the breadth of employers that we get is really big. We get a wide array of employers from lots of different sectors, lots of different geographical locations. We've got some international employers, but I guess what I want to know is, what can students do to prepare for a Careers Fair? 

Phill: I think you have hit the nail on the head, Cate. I think the key thing is actually taking some time to prepare. As you’ve outlined, we've got a number of Careers Fairs with a huge number of employers. I know when I was a student, I went to a Careers Fair, and I didn't really know what to expect, I didn't know where I was going, and it can be quite overwhelming. You walk into the Great Hall and there's 40 odd employers there, and you haven't really got a clue where to start. I can totally understand students when they're in that situation, but I think what we're very good at in Careers Network is publicising the employers that are going to be in attendance. That's all on our Careers Connect portal. 

I think the key thing is ensuring that you take a little bit of time ahead of attending the fair to well, first and foremost, understand which employees are going to be there. Understanding which companies, which types of businesses and organisations are going to be in attendance, and taking a little bit of time to understand what programs or opportunities they have on offer, and what area of business that they're in. I suppose the worst thing that you can do is turn up, go to an employer and say, ‘okay, never heard of you, what are you all about’. I think the best thing you want to try and do is demonstrate that you've at least taken a little bit of time to understand who they are, what program you’re potentially interested in applying to, and then asking more specific questions that you might not be able to find on the website on their careers page. You don't have to do loads and loads and loads of stuff. You don't have to overwhelm yourself with that respect, it's making sure you’ve just got a bit of awareness about who an organisation is. Many of the employees will be offering a variety of grad schemes or a variety of internship and work experience programmes, and so understanding what you're looking for and what they have to offer. Then you can get more out of the conversations that you're potentially having.  

Cate: I think also, it's a really great way to get in front of a lot of different employers. We also obviously have a wide program of activity where we have employers come on campus to do presentations or skills sessions and things like that pretty regularly. So, there are other opportunities to engage with employers, but not quite with such a high concentration of employers in one space, and especially on some of the smaller fairs that are more sector or business area relevant, that's a really great opportunity to get to know a lot of businesses. I think you hit the nail on the head, where you said you just need to ask them something that you can't just easily find out. If we think about the type of people that are working for employers and coming to these Careers Fairs, they must have a lot of the same really generic questions. So I guess one way that you could stand out is talking to them about something slightly different, because it must get terribly boring, answering the same question ‘so what do you do?’, all the time. So, if you can ask anything different, or, engage in a meaningful conversation, you'll already be a step ahead I suppose would you say?

Phill: Yeah, absolutely. I cast my mind back when I was organising Careers Fairs for a different university, and I would speak to a lot of the employers and organisations that would come on to campus and we'd hear lots of stories of ‘well, we got a lot of students asking us who we were, we've got these huge banners that are up telling students who we are’, but you're repeating that, and obviously that loses a little bit of momentum from the start in terms of the conversation. So, I think if you've got a little bit of that already understanding of that, then you can start with ‘oh, I understand you do xyz, tell us a little bit more about what that means’, and already they're going to be impressed, you're making a really good first impression. It’s a little bit different for those people that might have been stood there for four hours already speaking to lots of other students. So yeah, it's good to do that. 
I think most importantly, it's being clear in terms of what you want to get out of the conversation, because lots of you will be in lots of different positions. Some of you will be really sure about what you want to do. For instance, if you're an accounting student maybe, or interested in going into accounting, and you've got the likes of PwC and KPMG, you may well be really clear about which programmes, and you might be really focused on how do I really ace the application process? How do I make sure I stand out? At the same time we know lots of students who are trying to understand what their options are, not sure which direction to go in after they after they graduate. So, you're going to be asking different questions to determine whether a company is right for you or not. But I still think that same philosophy of trying to work out who is you trying to talk to, what you want to get out of those and the questions that you might ask that will set you up really well. 
Cate: I think also, even if a student has their sights on one particular employer that they're interested in working for, or one particularl employer that they've maybe seen somewhere else so they've heard or they have a friend who works for them, they're their golden goose. That's not to say that they shouldn't speak to other employers. You never know what you'll find out you might actually find out that the people who are there representing a different employer might say a lot about what you can expect on a day to day that really resonates with you. A lot of these employees, have graduates or individuals who have recently completed the graduate scheme who are there talking about their experiences as well. So, it's a really great opportunity for you to get a feel for things outside of just speaking to someone who works for HR and understanding, the more admin side of the application process, but more, what is this job going to be when talking to someone that actually does it, or has recently done it? I think that's really important.  

Phill: I think that's a really good point, because I think you're absolutely right because typically an organisation attending a careers fair will tend to bring one of people or a combination of people, one being that I say those Human Resources recruitment individuals who that to their purposes to, speak to you guys to understand that how students understand what their programs are about, etc., and to be honest, to attract you to apply for their opportunities. To support them, they'll also bring, say potentially alumni from our university. I think a really good first tip as well is, you might have to be waiting a little bit to speak to some of these employers, sometimes there are some queues, but when you get to speak to one of them, make sure you understand who it is you're speaking to, to start with. I think if you realise that they're on the recruitment team, you might want to ask some slightly different questions to what you might ask somebody that’s alumni that’s maybe 6 months, 12 months into their job there. So, if you speak into an alumni, you might be asking about the recruitment process, ‘okay, what was your experience? What worked well for you?’. Whereas somebody on the recruitment team, it'd be, ‘I understand you're looking at thousands of applications, what stands out?’ So, you're going to tailor your questions depending on who it is you're talking to on the same stand. So I think that's a really important thing to think about.   

Cate: All of what we're talking about in this conversation is about that networking experience. We've talked a little bit on this podcast about networking before. It's something that, you can never network too much. I think any conversation you have is a beneficial conversation. But networking also isn't something that comes easy to a lot of us. Personally speaking, I don't find networking a comfortable thing, I don't enjoy it, and I’m a long time into my career. I think that's something that many students find a little bit intimidating. What advice would you have for students that might not find networking comes naturally to them? 

Phill: That's a really good question, and I totally sympathise. I think many people in Careers Network and people beyond work as well would probably see me as a massive extrovert and quite comfortable talking to people, but you're right if you put me in a forced networking scenario and I’m totally different.  

First and foremost, the key thing to remember is that these are human beings. Don't put them on a pedestal or anything like that, which I think sometimes I know I do if I’m in a networking scenario. I’ll be like ‘oh, that's that person, that's really important’. I think the key thing to do is maybe before a fair is maybe practice your introduction. So, ‘oh, I’m Phill, I’m a sociology student and I’m interested in your xyz program, and I’d love to have a conversation’. Just something really short and snappy, so it's really clear as to who you are.  

Networking gets easier the more you do it. If you maybe put a couple of employers, you've done your research, you've seen that there's 30 to 40 different employers but you’ve maybe circled 3 that are the key ones you want to speak to. Well, maybe go and speak to some of the other employers before your key targets first so you get used to it, you get into the you get into the flow of it. Make some mistakes, it's not a problem. We understand that this is the first time that many of you will be going into a Careers Fair like this, and employers know that as well. They do understand that students are not necessarily always competent in this area or confident in this area, so there will be an understanding of that. Just try and keep it more conversational. Understand that they are human beings as well and get your friends to help you. So, if you and a couple of your friends are going to the Careers Fair together, well meet up before and say, ‘how does my pitch sound? How does my introduction sound? Does that sound okay to you?’. It might sound and feel a bit weird but just a little bit of practice ahead of it might just help overcome the nerves. By the end, you'll be talking to everybody, I’m sure. 
Cate: That’s such a valid point. Don't go straight to your favourite employer, or the one that you really want to engage with the most, go to some of the other ones that maybe you haven't heard of. They won't be offended by it. If anything, they'll be happy that someone's exploring a different option that they're maybe not interested in. It's good for people to practice, and they would still rather have a practice, engaged conversation than someone just walking past and grabbing some free pens, and not engaging with them at all. You never know you might learn something about a different employer that actually is really beneficial, or you think, ‘maybe I’ll look into that’ or ‘they're doing a presentation on campus in a few weeks, I’ll go to that because that was actually really interesting, and maybe I do want to learn about a bit more’.  

I don't think there's ever any negatives to speaking to more employers, because even with the one that you want, things don't always go the way we want them to. But similarly, you might actually realise ‘oh, I’m not sure I like that employer as much as I thought’. If you haven't spoken to others, you might then start to worry that you don't know what you want whereas the more your employees you speak to you, the more choices you have. 

Tell us a little bit about who Careers Fairs are for, because obviously they're for all students of all year groups, but then a lot of employers will be talking mainly about their graduate schemes and internships.  
Can first years get a benefit out of Careers Fairs? What benefit do students who are earlier on in their studies get?  

Phill: Very good question. So yeah, it's easy to go year group by year group here. If you're a first-year undergraduate, a Careers Fair can be your first trial run. Practicing that networking style, making some errors, making some mistakes, it’s no problem. But at the same time, there are some employers that do run first year exclusive work experience programmes. They may be shorter, more insight led programmes. So, there will potentially be opportunities for first years. Particularly if you’re a first year who has a clear idea of what you want to do. However, if you’re in that majority where you’ve just got to uni and you’re doing a course you like but you haven’t thought too much about what you’re doing after, which is absolutely fine, by the way. Going to a Careers Fair in your first year can just be a nice easy way to start seeing what the landscape is, what some of the options might be. No one's going to make you decide exactly what it is that you're going to do, and you can obviously change your mind as you're going through your degree program. But that first opportunity can just be surveying the landscape, see what's about, see what potentially I might be looking at later down the line.  
Staying with undergrads, if you’re in that second or penultimate year, I know many courses in the University of Birmingham have the option to do a placement year, and many employers who come to the Careers Fairs will have placement year opportunities which you can apply to. So that may be something that you’re targeting. Similarly, many employers will have internship and summer placement programmes. At the Law Fair, there’s the vacation schemes, as they're called. So, there's going to be opportunities there, if you're a second or penultimate year student. Of course, if you’re a final year or postgraduate student doing a one-year masters, for instance, and you're looking at ‘what am I doing straight after I finish here’, there will be a whole number of employers that will be recruiting for their graduate schemes and their graduate programmes.  
So yeah, there's a whole bunch of different reasons why you might be there and obviously that might change for you personally each year you go. But yeah, hopefully, that gives you a timeline of of typically what to expect.  

Cate: Definitely. This year we're doing things a little bit hybrid. So, we've got 2 Careers Fairs that are virtual, we've got a main Careers Fair that's virtual, but then we’ve also got a virtual element of the Law Fair as well. For those students who are thinking about participating in the virtual Careers Fairs, they are a little bit different than our standard in person, Great Hall Career Fairs, and I think sometimes it's a little bit harder to convey enthusiasm or professionalism over instant message type forums. What advice would you have for students who are interested in participating in a virtual fair? What might they do to get the interest of employers?  
Phill: I suppose when we look at the difference between virtual and face to face and thankfully, we've got face to face coming back. So, going back to that scenario we painted earlier, where you might be in a bit of a queue, you might be overhearing the conversations that students might be having with some of the employers that you want to speak to. That might give you some ideas of questions that you haven't thought about when you're in the queue, and you want to hear the answer to that so you might get a little bit more insight because you're over hearing other conversations. Typically, in a virtual environment, you tend to be a bit more on your own in that respect. So, what I was saying earlier around that preparation and understanding, okay who is it I’m about to talk to? Which organisation is this? What do they do? What area sector are they in? What program or programs am I interested in? What do I want to find out a little bit more about? Where are my gaps in knowledge? What can’t I find out from the website? What am I not about what's written in a role description? You can ask those questions. I think it does put a little bit more pressure on you in that respect to be a little bit more prepared, because you want to make the most out of that maybe 5, 10, 15-minute conversation that you're going to potentially have with that employer. I think that's one thing.  

I suppose there is the positive that you might be in your own space, you might be at home, you might be in a study space that you're comfortable in, and that type of thing. I’m sure you might be aware of these types of things that you've experienced over the last few years. Make sure your background is fairly not offensive, and all of those types of things. So yeah, I think that there is a little bit of added pressure, I think, with doing the virtual side of things. It certainly works for students that aren't able to get onto campus and that type of thing. I think you do need to do a little bit more preparation to make sure you can have a really good, positive conversation and get what you want out of that conversation. I think that's the most important thing really is understanding what do I need to find out, what's going to help me decide whether this is right for me, or how do I smash the application?  

Cate: I think that's such a good point, and I think one of the other benefits with virtual Careers Fairs, that as much as we're so excited to be back in person and on campus, a lot of our international employers still aren't able to travel onto campus so it's a really great way for your students to get in front of employers who aren't local to us, and maybe aren't able to come to our Careers Fairs. 
One thing I would say is that with some of these virtual platforms, and I think this is the same, whether it's a virtual Careers Fair, or whether an employer is hosting their own virtual event, is that a lot of them, there'll be a text option where you can, where you're either live chatting with someone, or sending a message through, and it's really important to make sure that you can convey professionalism through text. So, no text speak. Spell out words fully. Try to be not completely formal, but as professional as possible, and don't just treat it as informal, as though you're on to someone in IT for a delivery company or something. It's harder to convey professionalism over text so I think it's more important to make that extra effort, whereas if you were face to face or in person, you would be able to use gestures and body language to convey that. I think that's something really important.  

One thing before we finish, not to end on a negative, but mainly to turn it into a positive What's the one thing if you could give students one piece of advice of what not to do? Absolutely, do not do this at a Careers Fair. Is there anything that you can think of?  

Phill: I think you could have alluded to it, many of the employers will have, maybe freebies or information, nice notebooks. I've seen those battery pack things for your phone, portable batteries, USB sticks, water bottles, all of these things. I've seen chocolate and that normally keeps me fed during those days to be honest. But don't just go grabbing those freebies, almost to the detriment and not even acknowledging those employers because you see a really cool freebie, but you don't really want to talk to them and so I think I don't necessarily think that's a good thing to do. Try and avoid doing that. A common question that I've been asked year after year with Careers Fairs is should I take my CV? I think what we have to be clear about, certainly with Careers Fairs in the UK is that employers aren't necessarily going there these days to collect CVs, that's not their expectation. That's not to say that you shouldn't take a couple of copies just in case you have a really good conversation with someone, or a particular employer is maybe collecting a few CVs. I wouldn't stand there with your CV trying to give it out. A lot of the application processes for the types of employers that tend to come to these fairs, they're all online these days, they're big application forms. Employers don't go looking to try and collect CVs of of students. Certainly, take a couple of copies if you've got one, don't panic if you haven't. What I have seen in the past is people just trying to go to each desk and hand out CV and hope that they get a call afterwards. That might have worked 20 years ago, when we were in a different time and technology was different, but now we're in a much different space and it's just making sure that you're understanding of what their application process is. How do I how do I get the best out of this conversation? Then, I can implement it later on.  

Cate: I think that's really important, because depending on what country you're from, some Careers Fairs are structured very differently. Just because they're called Careers Fairs, doesn't mean they're the same, and doesn't mean the aims and objectives of the students, but also the employers, are the same. So, I think that's a really important thing to note. I’ve been to countries where a Careers Fair is literally standing in front of an employer just to hand them your CV and walk away, whereas here employers would expect you to have a conversation. I think on that point of international students. Now that we've got the graduate route visa, a lot of international students are interested in exploring the possibility of staying in the UK at least for those 2 years after their studies to explore the work environment in the UK through the graduate route visa. Even if they're looking to stay and get sponsored, it's really important that you don't just go to an employer and say, do you sponsor international students? 
I think that's a perfectly valid question to ask. But I also think that many employees have that information on their graduate websites, and I think that's the type of question that you would ask further into the conversation. So have a conversation, reassure the employer that you're actually interested in working for them because of their business, and because of what they do, and their company ethos rather than just because they hire international students. So, whilst it's not an inappropriate question to ask, it really depends on where, in the conversation you ask it, I think.  

Phill: Yeah, I totally agree. It goes back to what we were saying earlier about the typical pro types of profile of people that go to attend fairs from an employer perspective. If you are speaking to a recent alumni they may be an international student to and so you might be able to ask them about their experiences of being an international student going through the application process, but they're not likely to be experts in the recruitment policies and the legal elements of hiring international students. 
So it's about making sure you're asking appropriate questions. Similarly, the recruitment teams, particularly in some of these bigger organisations, those decisions might sit with the legal team. So, they're not necessarily going to be able to answer specific questions about your specific visa requirements, because I know there are differences on an individual basis as well. So, I’d avoid trying to go into too much detail about those types of questions, and instead focus on what is going to ultimately make the decision of the employer first and foremost in terms of how your application comes across for a particular job. The visa stuff comes after that. For any employer, they'll look at the requirements of a person about what they how they're going to work in a business once they have identified is that person a viable candidate to take forward. So that's the first bit you need to worry about. 
Cate: I think that's important, because a lot of employers have sponsorship licenses. You can find that information readily available on the government website. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're willing to sponsor graduates. But also, for the right candidate, a lot of employers are willing to be flexible. It just depends on the individual. But until you have that conversation about your capabilities, and about why you are the right person for the job which usually comes during the application and interview process, most employers aren't even going to entertain that process.  

Phill: I was just going to add one more thing. Just going back to the questions bit, for the benefit of our international students as well, try not to have really long complex questions for employers. Try and keep them fairly short and concise whether you're online, or whether you're in person. You're more likely to get a get the answers you're looking for from a much shorter concise question. Be really clear and set context if you need to but don't overcomplicate them. That can be a temptation to try and sound clever and try and sound like you've done loads of research; you don't have to go into too much detail to sound to make sure that you're coming across in the right way. Try and keep them short concise and then you're going to get the answers that you need from them.  

I suppose the last thing really is, particularly in a face-to-face environment, where there might be a queue of people, you've probably got maybe 5 minutes to chat to that person before they need to move on to speak to somebody else. So, the less time you're talking, the more time you're listening to their responses. I think it's really key, and in my last piece of advice just on that is, either in between employers that you're speaking to at the fairs or as soon as you walk out the Great Hall, take some notes, write down those key things that you've taken from those conversations. Because it might be a few weeks, or even a couple of months, before you apply for maybe some of those opportunities and there's lots of other things going on in your lives around education and everything else. So, you might well forget a few of those key things that you want to remember. So, try and note them down. I think some students forget sometimes. They have some really good conversations then a week or two later, I’m talking to them and they're like, ‘yeah, I can't remember everything they said’.  

Cate: Also, historically we've had up to 60 employers at a Careers Fair. So then, you think ‘oh, was it this one that said that, or was it this one that said that?’. So, it is really important to make note of those conversations that you have, even if you just scroll down a few words that you'll remember later. But a few trigger words to remember to remind you of what they said, because a lot of these employees will drop little pearls of wisdom or golden nuggets of information for the application process.  
Phill, thank you so much. It's been really nice talking to you, and I think you've given us a lot of really practical and informative insight into what students can do and real like tangible, next steps to prepare for these Careers Fairs, and especially as we go into fair season it's nice just to be reminded of the do’s and do not’s. Thank you so much for your time. It's been really lovely to have you.  
Phill: Thank you very much, Cate. Good look everybody going to all the Fairs and our employer events. 

Cate: And, have fun with it.   


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