Every semester, students must decide whether or not to attend the career fair, perhaps even missing class to do so. It is the first time many students pick up their formal clothes since the start of the semester. It is a time where students think about their future and whether they will sink or swim in the modern job market.

Navigating the Waters

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Trying to get a job is a lot like dating in that respect, albeit for most of us it is less fun, yet necessary. But, with practice and a bit of exposure, job searching can be made tolerable.

Taylor Lincoln, career services adviser to International Business, Marketing and New Media Marketing majors, gave her input on the career fair.

"The main benefit of students going to the career fair is just the opportunity to get their name out there, to meet employers and to network," Lincoln said.

While in an ideal world every job candidate would be selected entirely on the basis of merit and skill alone, we do not live in an ideal world. To stand out in the present job market is a matter of networking and developing soft skills.

"Employers we've seen are starting to really appreciate those soft skills of communicating, of being able to kind of adapt to some tough situations. There's a lot of people at career fair, and being able to kind of command a space when you're talking to an employer is really important," Lincoln said.

Conventionally, hard skills are defined as what your job actually utilizes, and they are generally more technical in nature. Programming, for example, would be a hard skill. Soft skills are those which aren't necessarily the main purpose of a job, but are still implicitly required to succeed in a position. They are usually more social in nature like networking — a skill that can be developed through repeated practice.

The value of attending a career fair comes not just from exposure to potential contacts, but also the improvement of one’s ability to make additional contacts in the future. Getting practice at networking and interacting with companies early on helps you develop the interpersonal communications skills that will enable more effective networking later on.

R. Venkatesan lyengar wrote about such a treatment of networking in a 2017 paper on the subject called "People Matter: Networking and Career Development."

“Networking is a skill, and like any other skill, networking can certainly be taught for career development or business growth. A program on networking should focus on teaching the participants the importance of taking initiatives and overcoming their reticence, fear, and self-doubt,” Iyengar wrote.

As these networking skills develop, through practice or through deliberate training, you will naturally accrue acquaintances: weak ties which could potentially turn into professional contacts. But should you focus on gaining more and more of these contacts or should you focus on building up the few you already have to make them stronger?

Quality vs. Quantity

Brian Krauth also wrote on this dilemma in a 2003 paper that models the relationship between networking and employment.

“All else equal, the proportion of a group’s social ties that are weak is positively associated with its long-run employment rate,” Krauth wrote.

Krauth’s work implies that the number of people one networks with is the most important factor in whether or not the networking leads to a job. However, there is another school of thought which emphasizes the opposite.

While garnering as many networking contacts as possible can yield results, it is only effective if those you attempt to network with remember you. Eric Koomen, director of Communications and Marketing at Saunders College of Business (SCB), spoke on why it's crucial to focus on a few strong connections.

"If you could walk away from the career fair with one solid contact that's gonna be kinda your champion at that company, or just helpful with that company and introducing you to people, that'd be much more valuable than dropping your resume and shaking hands with ten companies," Koomen said.

The job landscape is changing so rapidly that it is hard to keep up with what skills will be valuable to employers in the future.

"Hopefully we're all in careers where you don't need to do it often, but they say the average career now is 3, 4, maybe 5 years if you're really lucky, so a lot of us will be looking for new jobs more than just once right after college. So it's something that we get out of practice once we're in a career," Koomen said.

The transferability of soft skills ensures that even as the job landscape changes, you can still navigate through the ever treacherous waters. Even if by some miracle we should live to see a post-scarcity world brought about by automation, the work of developing social skills will not have been in vain, as they apply to all forms of interpersonal communication.

Where Do You Go From Here?

If we don’t know which approach is most effective, how do we know which to use? Ultimately, it comes down to what your goals are in networking. If your goal is to get a job out of it, an approach which focuses on quality and memorability off interaction may be more lucrative. If, however, your goal is the development of social and networking skills, an approach which focuses on the quantity of interaction would likely be more effective to that end.

For the former goal, a student's time would likely be better spent at one of the discipline specific networking events, like those held for the College of Science or SCB. While for the latter case, students can benefit from both those discipline specific events and the general career fair.

Whatever the case, although the career fair may not be as good at landing you a job right of the bat as one might hope, it still has value to offer by providing a chance to network and hone one’s interpersonal skills.

Of course, mandatory disclaimer, you are still a student. You shouldn't attend the career fair to the detriment of coursework, especially early on in your college career when you aren't yet looking for full-time employment. However, if you can attend the career fair, the benefits of networking and developing soft skills can pay dividends in the long term.

"I get it," Koomen said. "There's a lot of frustration, so I think, the advice, or the what I would tell students is try to be more realistic about it. Try to be more creative about it and see how you can use it and have fun with it, and try to just make contacts more so than focus on trying to leave there with a job or a job interview."

Even though it may feel like a soul-sucking endeavor to squeeze through the press of people in the Gordon Field House and Activities Center, wearing clothes you may not be confident in, it’s good practice for life in general.