“Matt: I keep seeing advertisements for various job fairs around town.  Are these worth attending?  And how about all of these ‘pink slip parties’ and similar events I’m seeing spring up where groups of unemployed people get together for drinks and such?”

Let’s start with the first part of the question, related to the value of attending job fairs.  While these events can sound highly tempting, and the Puget Sound area (like most metro areas) plays host to at least a few dozen such gatherings each year, I’ll confess I can’t think of a single case over the years where a client of mine attended a job fair and walked away with a viable, appropriate new lead to show for it.  Has anybody out there had a different experience?  Do you have a great success story to share, related to job fairs?  If so, please feel free to post a comment about your experience and enlighten us.  From my perspective, however, I find job fairs to be an almost complete waste of time for the average professional-level job seeker.  In fact, in some cases, I’m concerned that they can actually damage one’s search efforts — since it doesn’t do much for your confidence level to stand in a line of hundreds of job seekers at Meydenbauer Center, waiting for a 30-second turn to drop your resume in a basket!

So if these job fairs are so ineffective, why are there so darn many of them?  Well, for starters, it’s important to recognize that job fairs are viewed as a form of public relations by many companies and a way to get their name out in the community, even if they aren’t actually engaged in any current hiring activity.  They are also a way that organizations can pay lip service to certain topics, like diversity, and to publicly reinforce the notion that they engage in open, non-discriminatory hiring practices.  And lastly, on a more optimistic note, there’s no question that job fairs CAN be an effective way to attract lower-level candidates for hourly positions.  In fact, every job fair I’ve attended (especially the big ones) seems to be primarily intended to help companies find staff at this level, whether it involves the recruitment of custodial staff, call center reps, housekeepers, security guards, or valet parking attendants.  For professionals at the mid-to-senior-level, though, you can expect pretty slim pickings.

Long story short, these are the reasons I’d steer most of my clients away from such events, unless the job fair in question has a specific focus to it like high-tech or accounting that would be right up somebody’s occupational alley.  If you need to attend at least one job fair just to get it out of your system, however, go for it.  Or better yet, drag a friend or two along who’s also looking for work so that you can divide and conquer throughout the course of the day.  And how does one hear about such events?  Well, aside from the standard announcements in the media, one can always do a Google search on a phrase like “job fair in Seattle” or visit the WorkSource calendar here for a list of upcoming hiring events.  Remember that most fairs usually have their own websites, too, so you should visit these sites in advance to do some reconnaissance and make sure the list of participating employers is one that has at least some bearing on your own individual background and career goals.

As for that OTHER breed of career event that was asked about, that’s something of a different animal.  When you combine the current economy with a host of new social media tools that can help get the word out about events, in a hurry, it’s no great surprise that a ton of unorthodox and creative new events have popped up where enterprising individuals have devised new ways for job hunters to support one another — and to entice employers and potential employees to spend time in the same room together.  For a sampling of these types of creative new events, check out sites like Pink Slip Party and Seattle Job Social and Job Club Seattle.

Are these newfangled casual job fair + unstructured format + alcohol events worth attending?  It’s too early to say, especially since these gatherings wary wildly in terms of their format and their specific intended purpose.  If nothing else, though, we suspect they’re a lot more fun than traditional job fairs, and one probably can’t go wrong by checking a few of them out to see if they some value to the search process.  We also can’t help but relish the slightly irreverent tone many of them take towards unemployment as a general concept.  Given the cloud of grave seriousness surrounding most job-related events, we appreciate how some of these non-traditional get-togethers are trying to lighten things up and eradicate the stigma of being jobless, if nothing else!  So with these types of events, you might have to play the field a bit to see which ones fit your style more than others.  And again, we’d welcome any comments from people who have attended these kinds of functions and have some feedback to share…