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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.' "

He pushes himself into the scrum of 450 people who will spend the next three hours waiting in front of various recruiting booths. Some are visibly nervous, offering clammy handshakes. Others freeze up during interviews or burst into spontaneous laughter. One woman tells a recruiter for the Secret Service, "I'm not really big on the gun thing." But she is big on steady employment and hands over her résumé.

Thirty people are waiting to talk to the recruiter for Trinet Internet Solutions, a California-based Web design firm that specializes in working with Christian and nonprofit clients. The company is hiring for its Alexandria office.

"When are you looking to make a move?" the recruiter asks a candidate.

"Soon, if not immediately," the out-of-work Web designer answers.

Some try to fudge the fact that they are jobless. "So, you're still with the company?" the recruiter asks another candidate.

The guy hedges. "Well, what it is, it's kind of a unique situation."

One young man appeals to Trinet's Christian focus. "Me and my wife just got out of debt," he says. "I don't know if you've heard of Dave Ramsey, the faith-based financial guru?"

Quietly moving forward is Luiz Lee, the laid-off Fannie Mae analyst. He worries that employers will see Fannie Mae and somehow blame him for the subprime mortgage crisis. At the same time, he's overqualified for almost every job in the room. When he finally reaches the Trinet recruiter, he offers a handshake and a copy of his résumé.

"Carnegie Mellon," says the recruiter. "What was your GPA?"

Lee pauses. He worked at Fannie Mae for five years. He's 31 years old. It has been a long time since someone asked about his GPA. He suddenly wishes it were higher. He watches his résumé get added to the pile of 150 others.

'The Wind Is Out of Their Sails'

The career expo used to be the ubiquitous cattle call for the job-hopper or the merely curious. But in the deepening economic crisis -- 651,000 U.S. jobs were lost in February, the Labor Department announced yesterday -- such fairs are where the newly unemployed fight it out for the shrinking number of opportunities. Companies that run such events are noting similar patterns nationwide: double the crowds, half the number of employers and visible anxiety.

The Washington metro region is better insulated than hard-hit company towns such as Charlotte (banking) and Detroit (autos). But unemployment figures reached a 17-year high of 4.7 percent in December, and experts are predicting even higher numbers when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases new data this month.

No report is needed to confirm what Dave Woodard of Liberty Mutual sees while interviewing job candidates at "Sales Forum" at an Embassy Suites hotel in Tysons Corner. "The wind is out of their sails," he says, struggling to find the right words. "They are coming in . . . they don't have the . . . let me put it this way: Have you ever been to the FDR Memorial? A bunch of bronze statues standing in the soup line, heads down, coats wrinkled."

Woodard, a branch manager, corporate and boyish, is in a hotel room that Liberty Mutual has taken over to conduct job interviews. In various rooms along the hall, recruiters from other companies are doing the same -- Prudential Financial, Daiichi Sankyo and Brink's Home Security. This is a higher-grade job fair than the ballroom-style approach. More discretion. More personal attention. Better suits on the candidates. But even here they are jumpy and tentative.

Woodard looks them in the eye, listens intently and towel-snaps the swagger back into them. He is smiling when he strolls into the hallway of waiting applicants, rubbing his hands together and calling, "Okay, who's next? I love this!"

A retired Army captain who served in Iraq is next.

"God bless you, that's outstanding," Woodard says as the captain sits down on the edge of the couch. "I come from a military family."

The captain has worked for a brokerage house and as a contractor for the State Department, but now he works at a gym.

"Tell me about a time when you had to juggle multiple deadlines and priorities," Woodard says. He wants to see if the man has what it takes to sell insurance policies and participate in "Wednesday night fight night," a weekly sales session when the reps in the Alexandria office blitz potential customers by phone.

"Okay, I'll go back to Iraq for that," the captain says, starting slowly. "I was a lieutenant then. This was my first war. I didn't lose any soldiers. No one died."

Woodard will interview 30 people on this morning. Many aren't cut out for sales. One exception is a middle-aged man who confidently stakes out his place on the couch across from Woodard. He's a regional sales trainer who fears his job may soon cease to exist. For five minutes it's a battle of the alpha salesmen, each jockeying to control the conversation and each having the luxury of being employed.

"What are you looking for?" Woodard asks.

"Stability," the man answers. "I'm a very family-oriented person, a strong Christian." He pauses then adds with a wink, "We fall down sometimes."

"What if I told you I could make you a trainer?" Woodard asks.

"Talk to me," the man fires back.

"I'll be very to the point," Woodard says. "What's your salary requirement? What are you looking to make?"

Around $70K with a company car, the man answers.

"All right, we're in the ballpark," Woodard says.

Near the end of the interview, the man circles back to "ballpark," pressing for specifics.

Woodard smiles. "I can't tell you," he says. "But I like the way you close."

The man flashes his own smile. "Well, that's what I do. When can I follow up with you?"

A year ago, white-collar employees were juggling multiple job offers and comparing incentives. It was their market. But the tables have turned, and Woodard says this is a good time for companies that are still able to hire.

"It allows us to pick up some great talent," he says.

'Get Out of That Comfort Zone'

The Hyatt Dulles is in the far reaches of an office park hatched in the tech boom and now semi-deserted. About 100 people are lined up outside one of the hotel's ballrooms for a job fair, this one heavy on techies.

Several carloads of young engineers have driven up from Richmond, where their employer, Qimonda, a chip-maker, just slashed 1,500 jobs and filed for bankruptcy protection. Not even severance pay. Now the company refugees are standing in this line, smartphones leashed to their Kenneth Cole belts, their 401(k) accounts almost depleted to stave off foreclosure.

The welcome speech begins, and there's something familiar about it.

"Get out of that comfort zone a bit," the fair's organizer urges. "Get those blinders off and see what's in front of you."

It's Bob Hillman from National Career Fairs. Last week's Holiday Inn Rosslyn is this week's Hyatt Dulles. The only difference is that the economic news dominating the headlines has grown bleaker.

"Sometimes it's like looking for gold in California," Hillman says. "You have to kick over a lot of rocks before you find gold. Don't be afraid to kick over some rocks."

Another cavernous ballroom awaits with a dozen recruiting booths -- Kforce Professional Staffing, the Federal Air Marshal Service and Dynamic Security Concepts, which is looking for airport screeners. The complimentary coffee and tea goes mostly untouched, but the pitchers of ice water are drained by the cotton-mouthed job-seekers.

The guys from Qimonda survey the landscape. They stroll by the small-business owner who has drawn handmade signs advertising for a bookkeeper and a machine operator. So this is where the semiconductor boom ends, in this ballroom?

Nilesh Kenkare graduated from Texas Tech University in 2001 and then followed the boom from California to Texas and to Richmond for Qimonda. His wife also worked at Qimonda. "Two pink slips," he says, holding up two fingers.

At the tea and coffee bar, one out-of-work woman strikes up a conversation with another about how to cut corners. Costco, soup for dinner, small space heaters and a new one -- calling the waste company to request fewer trash pickups to reduce fees.

In the Hyatt's lobby, a TV flickers with more grim financial news. A man in a dark pinstriped suit wills himself to ignore it as he walks toward the ballroom, résumé in hand.

Luiz Lee, the laid-off Fannie Mae analyst, is now officially on the job-fair circuit. His white shirt is pressed, but his eyes are red from staying up until 5 a.m. applying for a job online. He's feeling the pressure. He's drawing $380 a week in unemployment -- nothing close to his Fannie Mae salary. He financially supports his aging parents in the Bronx. Every day, they ask him how his job is going. He has yet to tell them he was laid off because he doesn't want them to worry.

Lee has devised a strategy, and it is to pound the pavement and try not to be nostalgic about his old wages. In two months, he has attended eight job fairs. In so many ways, his old life is over.

"It's not about thinking five years ahead anymore," he says. "It's now one day at a time."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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