Why Virtual Career Fairs Are a Hot Trend in Hiring

Joe Milner, the talent acquisition manager at educational publishing and assessment giant Pearson, was at a campus event in Northern California when a company executive broached the idea of bringing in some of the promising students to the company’s primary locations in other states for interviews.

“We started to do the math on airfare, hotels, all that stuff, and it starts getting expensive,” Milner says.

It’s a common problem. How to scale up and diversify entry-level hiring across multiple college campuses is a conundrum that is front and center for many organizations as the labor market continues to tighten.

Recognizing this new reality, Pearson has decided to leverage technology and create virtual job fairs that allow it to interview groups of candidates from multiple campuses simultaneously via videoconferencing. “This is really going to give us a chance to not just limit ourselves to the local candidate pools,” Milner says. “It’s going to be a real positive for us.”

More companies are turning to virtual career fairs to find more diverse, qualified talent from a wider pool of colleges.

Leveraging Technology

Career fairs of all types remain a vital way to connect with top young talent across nearly all industries. According to an analysis of the 2018 campus recruiting season by talent acquisition technology firm Oleeo and employer branding firm Universum, on-campus events and career fairs ranked behind only employer websites among the top ways students learn about job opportunities.

Campus events are an important component of Pearson’s talent recruitment strategy, particularly for associate software engineer and associate project management roles within its technology organization. The strategy largely has been centered around physical career fair events at key corporate locations such as Phoenix, Boston and New Jersey, Milner says, where graduating college students would attend in person.

“That left a ton of potential talent out there,” Milner says. “We started looking at how we could leverage technology to start doing virtual events.”

The company turned to Montage, which touts its single solution to “engage, interview and hire better candidates, faster.” Its system allows hiring managers to leverage video, voice and text messages to connect with and interview groups of candidates, and it also offers AI-powered chatbots to help schedule the sessions.

For Pearson the goal was to replicate aspects of its very specific real-world career fair formula in a virtual setting.

At its on-site fairs, Pearson typically brings in groups of 15 or more students who are set to graduate within 60 days. It breaks them up into different phases, with some students completing one-hour sessions in which they can showcase their programming knowledge. Next, the company runs them through speed interviews in which multiple managers and team members conduct six-minute interviews on different topics. The events end with a group problem-solving exercise that allows the company to see how individuals engage with each other.

“It gives us a chance to really get a wide range of insight into the candidates, but also allow them to meet quite a few of our different managers too,” Milner says.

Going Virtual

For its first virtual fair, which took place this year, Pearson kept it small, inviting six students from different universities around the country who had indicated they were on the job market. Milner says the candidates seamlessly rotated through video interviews with different hiring managers in a range of departments.

“We ran them through a similar process using Montage as the primary interface,” Milner says. “It went well. We felt like it was able to allow us to really get to know these candidates, almost as much as when they’re in person.”

Milner says the actual technology required very little training for the hiring managers, who were already familiar with videoconferencing. It also proved immediately successful: Pearson offered positions to two candidates based on the virtual interactions alone, and one is set to start this month.

“The biggest takeaway is that it’s a great chance to be able to explore some students from other schools to make sure we’re getting exposure to some great talent out there,” he says. “I think this will be a necessary part of our recruitment mix.”

Mike Cooke, an account executive at Montage, says that in addition to allowing companies to greatly expand their reach to find talent from often-overlooked campuses, virtual career fairs offer efficiencies and cost savings for HR departments. For example, he says, a company could schedule a candidate for a two-hour virtual window and assign a hiring manager for each 30-minute section. “There’s not the coordination with the campuses,” he says. “There’s no traveling for their hiring managers. There’s time reduction, there’s cost reduction.”

Cooke says interest in virtual career fairs is increasing as the labor market becomes even tighter. “It’s a very hot topic right now,” he says. “I think it’s ultimately the labor shortage. It’s so hard to find the right candidate that simply going to your local campus to hire, or a couple of major campuses throughout the year, isn’t enough. There’s talent at some of these smaller campuses that is being missed.”

Seven Powerful Ways to Use Tech to Overcome Recruiting Bias

Sometimes bias creeps into hiring processes without anyone even realizing it. When you favor a white male candidate over a non-white or female candidate, is it really because he or she is the best person for the job—or is there a subconscious bias at work?

HR technology tools are available to help recruiters weed out bias. But, do these recruiting tools really work? The answer is a qualified yes—if the companies that use them are serious about achieving diversity. Here are seven ways you can use tech to overcome recruiting bias.

  1. Eliminate subconscious bias. Organizations that want to overcome bias might find it inadvertently slipping into their recruitment processes. In a recent TED talk, Yassmin Abdel-Magied cites the example of the Boston Symphony using blind auditions in the 1950s to boost the number of women in the orchestra. Even with blind auditions, gender bias still occurred based on the sound of the women’s heels as they entered the room. It was only after musicians were asked to remove their shoes that women’s representation in the orchestra climbed to a non-gender-biased percentage of about 50 percent.

At their best, tech tools eliminate bias by evaluating raw talent—the ability to play music, to write software code, to do math-related tasks—without letting subconscious prejudices enter the picture.

  1. Use testing to boost objectivity. While managers rank unstructured interviews as the best way to evaluate candidates, an article in Harvard Business Review points out that these face-to-face interactions are far less reliable than measurable assessment tools like mental ability tests and aptitude tests. Rather than trying to replicate ourselves in our hiring practices (a common pitfall that stymies diversity), tech boosts objectivity with dispassionate and non-personality-driven metrics.
  2. Write better job descriptions. Be aware that unintentional bias can seep into descriptions for job openings. Does the language you use have inadvertent masculine or feminine connotations, perhaps reflecting an expectation about which gender should fill the job? For instance, words like “ninja” or “rock star” might sound masculine, while words like “support” or “pleasant” might register as feminine.

Your HR team can turn to anti-bias tools like Textio and Gender Decoder to find more gender-neutral language when listing job openings.

  1. Avoid bias in resume perusal. Many HR veterans likely recall an eye-opening field experiment by the University of Chicago and M.I.T., in which fictitious resumes sent in response to job openings received a 50 percent higher callback rate for interviews if the names were “white-sounding” (Emily and Greg) versus ethnic-sounding (Lakisha and Jamal).

With the objective of avoiding such bias, the tech company GapJumpers uses a “blind audition” approach that evaluates applicants by skills and work performance rather than by names and keywords on resumes. Results have been encouraging. Instead of just one-fifth of minority and female applicants making it to first-round interviews, GapJumpers reports that its approach boosts that rate to 60 percent.

  1. Prioritize ability over cultural fit. Many recruiters talk about the importance of hiring people who are a good “cultural fit” for their companies, but can this inadvertently lead to homogenous organizations where diversity and competency are secondary considerations? There are ways to bring qualified minority and female job candidates to the attention of potential employers even in white, male-dominated industries.

Quartz Media LLC cites the example of CodeFights, whose gamified coding platform helps tech companies find talented programmers based on pure talent. Gender and ethnic bias don’t enter the picture—and neither does an arbitrary assessment of “cultural fit,” which often depends upon how the interviewer judges the job applicant’s personality as meshing with his own.

  1. Don’t stereotype by gender. Of course, everyone wants the best candidate for a job, but the sad reality is that misconceptions about innate gender abilities can cloud a manager’s judgment. Such bias came to light in a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wherein managers chose male candidates over female candidates by a two-to-one margin for a job that required simple mathematical skills. Managers (both men and women) more frequently chose the male candidate, even when testing revealed the female candidate to have equivalent or better skills.

Using results of the test alone would have eradicated the gender bias, and the company would have benefited by hiring the better employee.

  1. Assess your diversity efforts. Using HR analytics allows you to determine whether your recruitment efforts are as diverse as they should be. The online magazine Rework cites the value of using big data for HR—including predictive analytics, talent analytics, HR analytics, and human capital analytics—as a means for reducing discrimination and bias. Analysis of the raw data provides insights into the effectiveness of current recruitment efforts and allows companies to make adjustments if practices to improve diversity are falling short.

Trends toward workplace diversity will ultimately improve corporate productivity. According to research by McKinsey & Company, financial performance is significantly better for those businesses that have achieved greater racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. So, recruiting for diversity makes sense—and using the tips I’ve mentioned with recruiting tech to eradicate subconscious bias is an excellent way to help achieve it.

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