Navigating Career Fairs: a Fireside Chat with Joe Reaves

Joe Reaves is the DJoe Reavesirector of the Career Planning and Placement Center at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago where he helps students realize and actualize their potential and find meaningful careers. As a part of his role, Joe organizes the college’s annual career fair. In this fireside chat, we speak with Joe about how to stand out in the crowd and navigate a career fair successfully.

Can you tell me about your experience as a career counselor?

My first job out of college was with Caremark Orthopedic Services where I was a patient services representative. During this time, I realized that my true passion was in education so I began searching, and I landed my first career opportunity which was a mix of education and counseling for college students at Robert Morris. In this role I helped the students identify their interests and find internships and co-ops. It really set my soul on fire to be able to actually help people. From there I moved on to Loyola University Chicago, where I was the Assistant Director of the career center while I finished the final requirements for my MA in Counseling/Human Services at Roosevelt University. I was at Loyola for seven years, and eventually moved here to Wright College in 2005 to lead the Career Planning and Placement Center. For me, the transition was not just about growing professionally, but also about need. The students in Chicago’s city colleges really need direction and I was excited to be able to address their needs and help them excel in their careers.

At Wright, I have some of the same responsibilities, but my focus is more directional. In addition to providing services to our students, I also work to align our practices with other City Colleges of Chicago. In a nutshell we help assess where students are, what they need to do in order to get where they want to go, and give them the tools to do just that. One of our most popular services is our annual career fair.

What should job seekers do to properly prepare for a career fair?

  1. Research. Find out which companies will be attending the fair and be sure to do your research on what they do and what positions may be available.
  2. Resume. Bring several copies of your resume to hand out to potential employers. This will help them remember you when you send a follow-up email or apply for an open position.
  3. Elevator pitch. Have a 30-60 second pitch together that sells yourself and your interests.
  4. Professional attire. You need to have a professional mindset and professional appearance. Employers expect for you to take career events seriously and they will remember students that stand out.

What advice would you give to job seekers that are nervous or aren’t sure exactly what to say?

Just walk over to an employer and say hello. Be sure to introduce yourself, have a firm handshake, and [the employer] will typically take over the conversation from there or ask you a question. After this, you just have to feed off of their energy.

What are employers looking for- who are the students that get a call or email back?

Employers are looking for authenticity. They want to know that the student has a genuine interest in them. They hire the people who want to work for them, especially given that job market right now is the employers’ market. There are a lot of people fighting over very few opportunities. The students that do well are those that have done their research and know how to articulate why they want to work for a particular company. It is useful to be able to demonstrate that you have been keeping up with a company and even pitch a few ideas that you have to show that you have not only been keeping up with them, but understand their business and envision yourself as a part of it.

What are the most common missed opportunities or mistakes job seekers make when attending career fairs?

  1. Not engaging. Students will come to the fair with their own idea of a company and fail to engage with them because of their pre-conceived notions of what the company does or has to offer. It’s always important to speak with representatives because you never know what opportunities are out there if you don’t ask. You also can’t rely on the company’s website to have the most recent job listings. Students miss out on valuable information simply by not engaging.
  2. Not having a professional mindset. Sometimes job seekers will come to the fair without doing any research or without even taking the time to dress professionally. Employers take note of that.
  3. Forgetting to follow-up. During the career fair you should be collecting business cards so that you can continue the conversation after the fair.

What is the best way to follow up with an employer?

Send a professional but personalized email thanking them for their time. In this email you can also attach a cover letter introducing yourself and your skills. You can also call, depending on the person. The goal is to talk yourself into an interview. When you follow up the key is to be persistent without being a pest.

What final advice would you give to students who are struggling to find a career that aligns with their interests?

The key to everything is within you. The answer is there; you just have to come to it in your own time. You have to be honest and self-evaluate. Work on improving in areas you need to develop and take advantages of strengths that you already have. You have to utilize what you have to achieve the life that you want. You also have to choose people around you that will support your dreams.

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