Job fairs struggle to draw employers

It is not just the job-seekers at a job fair who are sweating the economy.

Companies that run the events have struggled, too, knowing they will be swamped by the unemployed and must hustle to find hiring companies.

“Over the last year and a half, it’s been the roughest I’ve ever seen in my industry,” said Jim Carter, owner of Kennesaw-based Diversity Hiring Expos, which runs career fairs around the Southeast. “The last six months have been pretty brutal.”

Like most companies that run job fairs, Diversity Hiring’s success depends on finding businesses that want to fill positions and will rent space where they can quickly meet hundreds of candidates.

Three years ago, a Diversity Hiring job fair would typically include up to 40 companies. Employer turnout now can be half that. Carter has seen companies delay payment and even had checks bounce, and he’s noticed less enthusiasm for meeting potential employees.

“It’s harder to find companies that are recruiting and hiring,” Carter said. “Some people say, ‘I’m just not hiring.’ I get that a lot.”

The economy has lost more than 8 million jobs since late 2007. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of hiring — which has been at longtime lows — ticked down slightly in the past several months.

The hiring slowdown has been relentless, said Beverly Johnson, assistant commissioner for field services at the state Labor Department. The department runs several hundred job fairs a year at its 53 career centers, she said.

“We are not seeing as many employers. And [of] the employers who come . . . many who came with many openings in the past have been coming to the career fairs with fewer openings,” she said.

Yet hiring continues, even in times of large-scale layoffs.

“I’d be out of business if nobody was hiring,” said Tory Johnson, CEO of New York-based Women for Hire. “You just have to work harder to find the people who are hiring.”

Jobless Americans outnumber openings by more than six to one, according to government numbers. At a typical job fair, the odds look worse.

A thousand people and 40 companies will likely show up March 23 at the Cobb Galleria for her career fair, Johnson said.

In good times, about 80 percent of the companies that participate in a career fair come back for another, she said.

“Now it’s probably 65 percent because of the economy,” she said.

That means it takes more calls than ever to find employers who will pay the $2,000 she charges to take part, she said.

As an enticement, her company sometimes offers employers a chance to give a talk, speak on panels or be part of mentoring, she said.

Job fair organizers know some employers want to be visible, even if they are not hiring in large numbers. While it’s cheap to screen resumes online, many companies still like to see potential employees face-to-face.

About 17,000 people were hired last year through the roughly 20 job fairs organized by the Atlanta Employment Guide, said Debi Green, general sales manager for the company.

“We are probably working harder than we ever worked to find companies,” she said.

The company now offers a 20 percent discount to employers.

Green expects bout 20 employers and roughly 1,000 job-seekers for Atlanta Employment Guide’s next career fair, which takes place March 22 at the Fox Theatre.

Another way to entice employers is to screen candidates, since most job fairs admit almost any job-seeker who shows up.

At the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency’s once-a-week job fairs, only folks who are qualified for the open positions — and dressed appropriately — are allowed in, said Deborah Lum, the AWDA executive director.

“It’s an opportunity to get an interview with an employer. Some people get hired on the spot.”

The normal employer-applicant balance changed in 2008, said Bob Hillman, event coordinator for Las Vegas-based National Career Fairs.

“It was really difficult to get employers to come to career fairs,” he said. “Job-seekers, no problem.”

His company offers employers different levels of involvement, each priced differently. The more they employer pays, the better the location for its booth, the larger its name can be on banners, the more it is featured in ads, the more perks it receives in lunch and drink tickets.

Most of the company’s job fairs draw about 350 to 500 people. But Atlanta-area events, like one planned for April in Decatur, are more crowded: about 1,000 people, generally.

Employers that are hiring “are looking for everything from electrical engineers to people who want to work in retail, food services and medical services,” he said. “We want as many people there as possible.”

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