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This fall, for the first time, three of Carnegie Mellon University’s annual career fairs combined into one large Virtual Career Fair, bringing together 168 employers and over 3,500 graduate and undergraduate students worldwide.

As members of the university community adapt in response to the ongoing pandemic, they’ve been faced with the challenge of continuing to provide the same high quality of education and career development. Career fairs involve a high concentration of individuals and focus on face-to-face networking, making these events especially ill-suited for current social distancing requirements. Additionally, broad adaptation to online learning means that Carnegie Mellon’s student community is now more geographically distributed than ever, spanning the entire globe. Recognizing these unique challenges, those responsible for planning several of the university’s separate career fairs resolved and organized to create one unified career fair, accessible to any student or employer around the world. 

Drawing students from engineering, computer science, and the other sciences, the Technical Opportunities Conference (TOC) has been Carnegie Mellon’s largest career fair for more than 40 years and brings back the most alumni of any event on campus. The student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) regularly participates in planning the event, represented this year by TOC Co-chairs Tanvi Bhargava and Meghana Keeta, both students in electrical and computer engineering.

“Overall, I think it’s nice to have students more involved in planning because you get their perspective firsthand and how they react to all of these changes, especially during a strange year like this,” said Bhargava.

The TOC organizers joined staff from the Career and Professional Development Center (CPDC) who are responsible for planning Encompass, the biannual career fair for all majors featuring employers spanning a full range of industries. The virtual fair planning committee was rounded out by staff from CMU Silicon Valley, whose annual Converge Silicon Valley fair has previously attracted graduate-level students from technical degree programs toward careers in mobility, security, data science, software engineering, product management, product design, development, and entrepreneurship. 

The planning committee chose CareerEco to host the event, a platform intended to transmit the physical aspects of the networking event experience into the virtual environment. Students conditioned to the formalities of face-to-face networking were required to adapt to the virtual venue.

“I know a lot of people feel like they come across better in person, so now that things are online, they feel like it’s harder to make an impact on someone, harder to make a connection with a recruiter, and really convey who they are virtually,” says Keeta. “A big part of our planning was trying to figure out how to ensure that human connection wasn't lost.”

We would like to recalibrate the expectations of a virtual career event for both students and employers, and to maximize the platforms and technology we have available to us.

Jeff Jeffries, Director, Employer Relations, CPDC

Changes for students meant changes for employers, who also had to completely rethink how they handle networking and recruiting. Employers were able to access student resumes and information prior to the beginning of the event, enabling greater planning and targeted networking than would have been possible under normal conditions. Their fair “booth” also included greater functionality and capacity than any physical space. Each booth was essentially a chat room for employers to post jobs and information, or where up to eight recruiters could chat with students via text or video.

The planning committee received plenty of helpful feedback from employers and students via CareerEco. Some users had difficulty using the platform or (for employers) managing multiple chat sessions at once, and both groups preferred in-person networking, while recognizing the current necessity for virtual events. Despite some difficulties, 90 percent of employers in attendance reported their interactions with students as being from good to excellent, and more than two-thirds of students reported some form of follow-up activity with an employer as a result of the event.

This fall’s Virtual Career Fair provided an otherwise-impossible networking opportunity for thousands of students affected by the pandemic, and the new methods and tools adopted under these extraordinary circumstances will inform how networking is conducted in the future. 

“As we review our events for the spring semester, the experience of this combined event has helped us in our planning process,” said Jeff Jeffries, director of employer relations for the CPDC. “Most importantly, we would like to recalibrate the expectations of a virtual career event for both the students and employers, and to maximize the platforms and technology we have available to us.”