washingtonpost.com > Business > Local Business

At Career Fairs, Anxiety and Hope for Job-Seekers

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009

They are told to line up single file against the wall. No stampeding, nice and easy, the doors will open at 11.

The long column of business suits stretches across the promenade level of the Holiday Inn Rosslyn. The men jingle coins in their pockets, the women in heels shift their weight. They are all holding résumés, facing the doors of the ballroom with the banner that says, "National Career Fairs: Making Connections Face to Face."

The elevator keeps bringing more people, and some in line glance at the new arrivals as if figuring their own shrinking odds. The line now doglegs around a corner and down a hall into ice machine territory, farther and farther from the ballroom where recruiters for a dozen employers are waiting.

"Good morning!" says a man with a booming voice and an American flag tie. Bob Hillman travels the country for National Career Fairs. He stands in front of the line and gives a rousing welcome to the anxious crowd. How many have ever been to a job fair, he asks. Only about a third of the hands go up. He launches into some success stories from recent fairs in Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh.

"Open your eyes and think outside the box a little," he encourages. "Take the blinders off. Get out of your comfort zone."

No one in line seems overly comfortable. They listen quietly. Many have just been laid off or been given notice. Gone is the confidence provided by a $75,000-a-year job, a 401(k) plan and a president who assured the country, as George W. Bush did 10 months ago, that "we're not in a recession."

Was it only last year that a hotel ballroom was the place to sit through the Mardi Gras-themed annual sales meeting before hitting the lobby bar for drinks and then catching the shuttle bus to dinner?

Hillman tries to pump everyone up. First impressions happen only once. "If you are concerned with how much gas it cost you to get here today or how much hotel parking is, don't tell them your sad story," he says. "Give them a smile and a positive attitude."

"We can't hear you," someone in the back shouts.

When it's almost time for the doors to open, Hillman offers one final bit of advice. "It's like looking for gold in California," he says. "You have to kick over a lot of rocks to find gold. Go in that room and kick over some rocks!"

The rock-kickers pour into the ballroom. One of them is Luiz Lee, laid off last month from his job as a senior IT analyst at Fannie Mae. He is wearing a dark pinstriped suit and carrying a résumé that charts his passage through Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Virginia and an annual salary climbing toward six figures. He looks shellshocked as he faces his prospects. Scattered around the room are recruiting booths for Avon, First Cash, Family Dollar, Ameriprise Financial, DMG Securities and Atlantic Remodeling. Most are sales jobs.

"I've been numb, a sense of disbelief," Lee says. "I told my girlfriend, 'It hits me every morning: I'm not going to work today.' "

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company