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Fair game; Are job fairs worth attending for those in the hunt for employment?

Jaimi Feliciano has been jobless since she came to Buffalo three months ago.

After moving here from Puerto Rico, she has attended five job fairs in the area.

Even though she is armed with a bachelor's degree in accounting, she has grown a little frustrated, especially since she was told by an area employment agency that companies sometimes advertise for jobs that aren't even really open.

She said job fairs seem to be used more to promote a company than to actually find new employees.

"That's probably what's going on here, too," she said earlier this month at a job fair in the Walter J. Mahoney State Office Building downtown.

Job fairs are stressful events. Dressed to impress, those eager to work bring resumes and smiles hoping to catch the eye of an employer. The fairs draw hundreds of job seekers, putting all the negotiating power in the hands of the employers. And nearly all attendees leave exactly how they arrived -- hopeful and jobless.

So, are these fairs really helpful in finding a job? Or are they just resume grabs for the companies, where a job seeker's chances are minimal?

Mayor Byron W. Brown proclaimed that more than 1,500 "good-paying" jobs were available at a job fair the city organized last fall.

The openings included entry- and midlevel positions with "leading local employers."

Nearly 1,900 job seekers attended, meeting with 19 potential employers.

But how many people actually ended up getting hired?

In all, employers who responded to inquiries from The Buffalo News reported that, at most, 16 or 17 people found jobs as a result of the Nov. 10 fair at the Buffalo Museum of Science. The city said that twice that number found work.

"I don't think the number means anything," Brown said, noting instead that the event was just "another effort, in many, to assist people who are looking for employment."

In terms of gauging the success of job fairs, there doesn't seem to be a baseline for comparison, according to local employment experts.

There's a difference between a job fair and a career fair, noted Arlene F. Kaukus, director of career services at the University at Buffalo.

Most of UB's events are career fairs, which involve more networking and the opportunity for job seekers to explore possible career paths, she said. Kaukus said her office measures the success of events by following up with employers and job seekers.

"It can be a challenge at times because once people leave the fair, it's hard to know what ends up happening for them," Kaukus said.

The Community Action Organization of Erie County referred people to the city's November job fair, but was unable to track whether any of those people found work, said Sjunseeargn Brown, the organization's director of employment and training.

Last April, the CAO held its own job fair, with eight to 10 employers attending, said Sjunseeargn Brown, who is not related to the mayor. From that event, about 22 people were hired, she said.

Results from different job fairs vary, depending on a number of factors, including whether the employers are hiring at that time, Sjunseeargn Brown said.

The 19 employers that attended the city's fair included M&T Bank, First Niagara Bank, GEICO, many firms in the medical and health fields, along with the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Public Schools.

The two area banks each said at the time they were looking to fill several hundred openings.

Many employers did not accept applicants' resumes during the event, pointing job seekers to submit applications through their companies' websites.

But with so few hires, what does that say about how worthwhile the event was for employers and job seekers?

For many companies, even meeting a handful of candidates can be helpful, said Mike Skowronski, corporate relations developer for Niagara University's career services office.

"If [companies] meet one or two people they can bring on, it's well worth their trip out," said Skowronski, whose office put on a fair for students last month.

The level of success can depend on the cost of participating, with different events varying in costs, he said.

The city's November fair was free for job seekers and employers.

In terms of recent UB fairs, Kaukus said preliminary figures from a "Tech Fair" held last fall indicate nearly 40 percent of employers reported they planned on following up with at least 10 students they met at the event.

Kaukus called that a good indication that the employers who attended "see high-caliber talent that they are interested in pursuing for future opportunities."

>Being prepared

For job seekers, it can be quite discouraging to leave a job fair without even a lead on a job, Skowronski said. They may not have been able to get enough face time with the employer or may not have been able to set up an interview or even have a company representative take their resume.

But such experiences can make job seekers realize how much effort it takes to impress prospective employers, and it can force them to improve their presentation, Skowronski said.

"You have to come prepared," he said.

John Ryan, a 24-year-old from Grand Island, was at the November job fair at the museum.

He said he's been to six job fairs in his life, and was offered two jobs as a result of the one fair. But he said he believes most people are not aware of how limited their prospects of getting a job are at these types of events.

"Those who do, show up early," he said.

ITT Technical Institute had five job openings at the time of the city's job fair, including two entry-level positions, but has yet to make a hire from the event.

Although she hoped more would be submitted, a "good amount" of applications were taken in, said Robin Reese, director of recruitment for ITT.

The institute plans to keep the applications on file for future use, said Reese, who called the event "wonderful for the community."

"To me, success in this situation doesn't mean how many people applied," she said. "It reallly is more about getting out there that there are jobs in Western New York and these are what the jobs are."

Some fairgoers were told how to further their job searches. At the City of Buffalo's table, representatives advertised eight upcoming civil service tests for jobs including water line inspector, assistant accountant and associate engineer. Resumes were accepted from 73 people, all of whom were forwarded information on upcoming civil service exams.

But of the eight civil service positions advertised by the city at the fair, none ended up being filled by a job fair attendee, the city said.

The city school district was one of many employers that did not accept applications at the event, instead directing job seekers to apply online.

Based on website statistics, 45 applications were made online the day after the fair, said district spokeswoman Elena Cala.

There were 28 job openings posted by the district at that time, but Cala could not say how many hires were made, if any, from the job fair.

"We don't ask where they heard about us," Cala said.

>Different counts

The News contacted employers who attended the city's job fair, and the 11 companies that responded to inquiries made over two weeks confirmed that they hired approximately 16 or 17 new employees directly from the fair.

City officials said they've been told by employers 26 people were hired to date -- 17 as full-time employees and nine as part-time workers. The city acknowledged it did not receive reports back from each employer.

Mark D. Croce said he made six hires directly from the fair for his entertainment complex at Statler City, and the jobs that were open were mostly in food service.

Not all job seekers were looking for jobs in hospitality, said Croce, who noted that the difficulty he sees in job fairs is matching individuals with specific jobs.

"I think [the mayor's] initiative had good intentions and had some level of success," Croce said.

The mayor said the city will "absolutely" hold another job fair in the future, including possibly one for young people.

"I kind of liken [job fairs] to the [city's] gun buyback [program]," Brown said. "As far as I'm concerned, if one person is able to get a job as a result of the job fair that didn't have one before, it's a good thing."

Diane Ronald of Clarence had been unemployed for six months as of the April 12 job fair in the Mahoney State Office Building on Court Street.

She estimated that she had sent out about 200 resumes in her job search, and said persistence and networking were keys to the process.

She acknowledged the potential for a job fair depends on who is representing the company at the event. Aside from the appropriate skills, finding a job often comes down to connecting with the right person at the right company.

"You've just got to be a good fit," she said.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com