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Economy & Business

Coronavirus Concerns Move College Job Fairs Online

College job fairs going online has allowed more companies to participate in them, and students can be more relaxed with set appointment times that they can attend from their homes or dorm rooms, said Will Zwikelmaier, Director of Career Opportunities and Employer Relations at Missouri S&T.
Nat Thomas
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St. Louis Public Radio
College job fairs going online has allowed more companies to participate in them, and students can be more relaxed with set times for appointments they can attend from their homes or dorm rooms, said Will Zwikelmaier, director of Career Opportunities and Employer Relations at Missouri S&T.

Scenes of college students and job recruiters crowding into huge rooms have become another tradition the coronavirus pandemic has moved onto a virtual space.

ROLLA — Ebrahem Salem of O’Fallon, Missouri, had a typical successful college career. He studied hard, got good grades and even had a job offer months before his graduation in May after attending Missouri University of Science and Technology’s on-campus career fair.

But the petroleum engineering major got bad news when the coronavirus showed up.

“March came around, and I received information that my offer had been rescinded due to COVID-19 and the oil market downturn,” Salem said.

With his job offer gone and the other companies he was talking to not hiring, he went back to S&T to take more classes. Now he’s looking for a job again. But this time, the job fair isn’t in person. Like many things during the pandemic, it’s all virtual.

That’s a big change for universities. At Missouri S&T, semi-annual career fairs have usually meant thousands of students lining up to get into the school’s sports arena wearing their interview suits and waiting to make their best impressions on recruiters.

Those appointments have all gone virtual this fall at universities across the country, including at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and Missouri S&T.

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Andrew Layton
Coronavirus concerns made an event like Missouri S&T's 2019 career fair impossible this year.

“We are a little afraid that we’re going to love this,” said Will Zwikelmaier, director of Career Opportunities and Employer Relations at Missouri S&T. “Because when we started making this decision, we made a list of pros and cons. The pros so outweighed the cons, especially at our university.”

Zwikelmaier said more companies are able to participate because they don’t have to come to campus. And students can be more relaxed with set times for appointments that they can participate in from their homes or dorm rooms.

But there are cons, and the companies notice them. Having to stand in line and talk to a recruiter in a crowded room while wearing uncomfortable clothes can be a telling sign of someone’s ability to work under pressure.

“There is a lot of relation of that scenario to when you’re in a manufacturing environment where you’re around a lot of people,” said Kim Dyhouse, a Missouri S&T alum and engineer recruiting for Nucor, a steel company. “There’s something to be said for still being able to come in confident, and still perform when you have this adrenaline rush.”

Adding to the cons is research, conducted at Missouri S&T, that shows employers have a less favorable impression of job candidates who interview over video than those who interview in person.

The experiment, which occurred years before the pandemic would push more interactions to virtual spaces, had employers watch the exact same interview — some in person and some over video.

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Tom Wagner
From left, Dr. Clair Kueny, Dr. Denise Baker and Dr. Devin Burns are psychology professors as Missouri S&T who found that employers have more favorable impressions of job candidates who interview in person, compared to over video.

“Our results showed the average response for the in-person candidates was seven out of 10. And the average response for the video candidates was five out of 10,” said Devin Burns, one of three Missouri S&T psychology professors who conducted the research. Their findings were published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Human Computer Interaction in August.

The research suggests job candidates who interview online are at a disadvantage, but only if they are competing against people who interview in person.

“We’re not saying that Zoom interviews are bad. We’re saying that we know that there’s a lot of standardization that goes into how to interview applicants, so you’re fairly comparing scores,” said Clair Kueny, another of the study’s authors. “And we’re saying that this is another area that needs to be standardized.”

Missouri S&T called its virtual career fair that was held last week a success. The school reported 3,800 students participated, making it the second-biggest career fair ever at S&T. Survey results from students and recruiters showed more than 85% of them thought the format was comparable to or better than an in-person job fair.

Salem, the petroleum engineering major looking for a job, was one of the students who saw some big advantages.

“I felt like I was able to sell myself and connect a little bit better with the recruiter, rather than them having been there all day or meeting with a 100 different kids all day, and standing all day,” he said.

Missouri S&T is continuing to evaluate how the virtual career fair went, and making plans for another one in the spring if coronavirus concerns make that necessary. Even without pandemic restrictions, the school said it might choose a hybrid model in the future.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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