Penn State Smeal Supply Chain Career Fair goes virtual, doesn't miss a beat

September 29, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Nobody knows whether any students wore sweatpants and slippers to the Penn State Smeal College of Business Supply Chain and Information Systems Career Fair in early September.  

But they could have.

That’s because the multi-day fair was held online instead of in-person for the first time in the event’s 19-year history. Turns out, it hardly mattered.   

“Over three days, we hosted 94 companies, nearly 1,200 students, and logged more than 4,300 text chats, video chats and audio calls — impressive numbers considering the change in format,” said Tracie Shannon, administrative director of Smeal’s Center for Supply Chain Research (CSCR). “The night before the fair, we also hosted a more casual virtual coffee house with 13 companies and 241 students, a high-water mark for that event.”

Not bad for Penn State Smeal’s first-ever virtual career fair.

A history of growth

The first Supply Chain and Information Systems Career Fair was held at a tumultuous time — just a week after 9/11. Only five of the 12 companies scheduled to attend did so, and students had difficulty getting there due to its location at the Penn Stater Hotel.  

But, driven by demand and Smeal’s national reputation in supply chain education, the three-day fall fair adapted and grew, finding a permanent home in the atrium of what was then the new Business Building in 2006. It also added a two-day spring fair at the request of participating companies.

“The career fair has kept growing because the profession has kept growing,” Shannon said. “Even now, during a worldwide pandemic, there are more jobs than students. The fair is a great way for companies and students to connect for jobs, co-ops and internships.”

The fairs typically attract more than 100 companies “of all shapes and sizes,” according to Shannon, including Fortune 500 behemoths and smaller, regional companies. Smeal’s excellent reputation and nationally ranked Supply Chain and Information Systems Department makes it fertile ground for companies looking for future employees.

With a roaring economy and demand high for students, the 2020 fall career fair was practically on cruise control. Then came COVID-19. 

A need to pivot

The realization that the fall career fair would need to move online came soon after Penn State switched to remote learning in March. A University-wide committee quickly formed to discuss how to handle Penn State’s huge Career Days, which are held twice-yearly in the Bryce Jordan Center.

“Out of that meeting came the realization that Supply Chain and Information Systems couldn’t pack dozens of company reps and 1,000 students into the Business Building atrium for our fall career fair,” Shannon said. “It would have to go virtual.”

Things had to move quickly. The first step was finding a vendor with an online platform that could support the scale of the event and meet the needs of participating companies and students. Ashley Rippey, executive director of Smeal’s Business Career Center, and Tracie Shannon from CSCR worked collaboratively on the university committee to select a provider for the technology. 

“We talked to our career fair companies and their No. 1 ‘must have’ was embedded video so they could video chat with students,” Rippey said. “We ended up looking at nine vendors and by the end of April we had picked one.”   

Adding pressure to the search was the intent that the chosen vendor would be the one the entire University would adopt for future events such as this; Smeal would be a trailblazer.

CSCR staff members took it upon themselves to help participating companies set up their virtual booths, assisting them with things like logo placement, company descriptions and job postings. Staff worked through the summer to ensure the fair’s success, but as the date neared, everyone held their breath.  

A great success

If you walked through the Business Building’s atrium from Sept. 1 to 3, you would have seen and heard very little. It was a different story online.   

“It was strange not having the hustle and bustle of the in-person fair, but things were buzzing online,” says Shannon, who watched the event unfold in real time on her desktop. “Student engagement was high and virtual lines built up at many of the vendor booths. Many of our students had virtual internships this past summer, so the online format of the fair wasn’t that big a deal for them.”

During the fair, students and company reps could interact via text, video chat or a phone call. These get-to-know-you sessions were limited to 10 minutes each to keep things moving. Some technical glitches popped up but were manageable.    

While the final number of participating companies was down slightly from last year, the number of students was about the same, and feedback was very positive.  

“I thought it was very well organized and the online interactions we had with students were just as meaningful as in-person interactions,” said Heather Evans, manager of executive recruiting for Retail Business Services in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “I actually felt less rushed and was better able to focus on each student.”

Evans added that the virtual fair was also more convenient for her team.

“It’s not always easy to pull people away from work and bring them to State College for two or three days,” she said. “Going virtual meant we could attend the fair from the comfort of our own homes or offices. I give credit to Smeal. We work with a lot of colleges and they were by far the earliest to reach out to us with their plans.”

According to Steve Tracey, executive director of the CSCR, the success of the virtual career fair didn’t happen by accident.

“Our early pivot from in-person to virtual and the leadership shown by Tracie, Ashley and their teams made the difference,” he says. “If we hadn’t acted decisively, Penn State risked falling to the bottom of the list for employers.”  

As for future Supply Chain and Information Systems Career Fairs, the decision has already been made to go virtual in the spring, Tracey said. Beyond that, things are up in the air. But Tracey predicts elements of the virtual fair will have staying power.

“Post-COVID, I think you’ll see a combination of in-person and virtual, which will make it a more robust offering for companies and students,” he said. “Think of it as putting more arrows in the quiver.”

As for Shannon, she said the similarities of an in-person fair and a virtual fair were greater than the differences. 

“The way the students interacted with the employers was different, but the conversations between them were the same … the students still had to sell themselves, still had to share their experience,” she said. “Our tagline throughout the planning process for the fair was ‘virtual doesn’t mean impersonal.’ I think we accomplished that.”

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Last Updated September 29, 2020