The middle of September is an important time for some Hokies. Classes begin to ramp up, deadlines become less forgiving and the all-important career fairs are about to begin. However, this scenario played out a little bit different this year. With COVID-19 taking its toll on Tech, many aspects of the school have been forced online. This included two of the biggest annual career fairs: Computer Science Source and Engineering Expo.
CS Source took place Monday, Sept. 14, and Engineering Expo took place from Tuesday to Thursday, Sept. 15-17. All company information sessions, chats on the days of the events and interviews were moved to a completely virtual format.
The move to a virtual format created some brand-new stresses for career fair attendees. Attendees had the option to enter multiple lines at once to talk with companies on a more efficient schedule. This created a hazardous balance for many attendees trying to talk to as many companies as possible while also trying not to stretch themselves too thin.
“In person you’re only standing in one line, you’re not standing in 10 lines at once. The problem is if you get chosen at the same time, then you’re talking to two people and that can be difficult to do,” said Brandon Venable, a senior majoring in computer science, about CS Source.
Wait times increased rapidly as the day went on at each fair. Eventually each company’s queue was at a 30-minute cap, giving attendees little information on if they would be waiting for their chance for half an hour or the rest of their day.
Once the wait time was up, things didn’t get any easier for attendees. The abrupt nature of getting pulled into a text chat with little warning after an extremely long wait was nothing short of panic-inducing for some. Each chat came with a 10-minute time limit to make sure everyone got their turn. While this was likely in an effort to ensure everyone got a fair shot, the strict nature of this timer made what are normally casual chats feel, for some, like a race against time.
In past career fairs, this time crunch only existed through implicit pressure from long lines of fellow Hokies.
“Imagine if in person you were talking to someone and they (said), ‘Oh, time’s up,’ and they don’t talk to you at all,” Venable said.
However, the move to an online format wasn’t completely negative. For many, the tone of the events felt informal compared to previous years. Attendees were able to take a breather from the expensive and often uncomfortable aspect of career fair prep that is dressing business formal, which many appreciated.
“I was looking at representatives and they had polos on (or) T-shirts. I think there was definitely more of a relaxed online environment,” Venable said.
Beyond feeling more comfortable in their clothes, many attendees felt less stress lounging at home between chats.
“When I’m at home around all of my own stuff, I can have a water bottle next to me, maybe a snack for after I talk to people,” Venable said.
The shift to an online format created challenges for more than just the students attending the fairs. The first major hurdle the Student Engineers’ Council had to overcome was finding a suitable platform to host Engineering Expo on. This decision was made early into the planning process, soon after the spring semester was transitioned online in April.
“(Brazen) felt like a comfortable choice at the time, and was something that (all organizations conducting career fairs) decided on together,” said Mariam Hasan, the Engineering Expo chairman of the SEC and a junior majoring in biomedical engineering.
The other major hurdle the SEC had to address in the planning phase was advertising this event to companies. It was unclear if companies would see value in coming to the Engineering Expo at all, considering its online format and the rough financial times many were enduring due to COVID-19.
Despite these concerns, companies did show up by the day of the expo and attracted many students to come talk to the recruiters.
"In the end, companies started trickling in and we even had a lot reach out to us the day before to ask if they could register," said Shivani Bajaj, president of the SEC and a senior majoring in industrial systems engineering.
Brazen seemed like the safe choice at the beginning of the planning phase. However, the platform crashed on the first day of Engineering Expo, which left the SEC performing damage control until the issue was resolved.
Normally during an in-person career fair, organizers have complete control over the venue and can help solve logistics issues, so it was hard for the SEC to simply sit back and wait.
"Students don't really have that much time to wait, (and) companies don't really have that much time to wait,” Hasan said. “(Companies) are paying to be here for an amount of time and expect to talk to students for that entire time.”
Despite the numerous struggles in moving the Engineering Expo online and the rocky start to the event, it ended up being successful in what it set out to do. Companies were able to make meaningful connections with students, which is becoming increasingly difficult to do in an all-online era of job hunting.
"We had around 5,000 completed chats every day, around 15,000 completed chats (in total)," Bajaj said.
The overall experience for both organizers and attendees of the fairs this year was different than in years past. However, everyone was able to find a unique way to approach this challenge, and no one gave up just because they weren’t able to do things normally this year. This resiliency has always been present in Hokie culture, and certainly looks good for landing a job.