04 May 2015

Using Career Conferences To Boost Your Interviewing And Job Search Skills

There are dozens of career conferences offered to veterans to help find a job. Go to one even if you're not ready so you can get some practice for when you are ready.

If you’re preparing to leave the military you might feel, like I did, the impending stress of going through interviews. I hadn’t been formally interviewed for a job in over ten years. I wasn’t exactly ready to sign up for a new career, yet. Most of my job search was going to be done during my terminal leave, giving me a couple months of paid time off to line up a new career. So about a month before my last day in the Marine Corps, I tried to figure out a way to get some real life practice in — train like you fight, right? There were a couple hiring conferences and networking events that I had scheduled for that period, events where I knew I’d be interested in the companies and positions offered. However, I didn’t want those opportunities to be the first time I was interviewed. So even though I wasn’t entirely prepared or even interested in finding a job yet, I figured I’d give it a try anyway. Learn by doing, as they say. 

To maximize the experience, I replied to one of the recruiting companies that I’m sure most service members have been spammed by throughout their careers. The recruiters had been sending me e-mails since the day I was commissioned. I finally gave them a call and after a few chats and passing along my resume, I was scheduled for one of their hiring conferences where they brought in a couple dozen companies looking for veteran talent. The recruiting firm tried to match me with ones that I might be a good fit with, but remember, this was going to be a learning experience, so I was valuing quantity over quality at this point. I pushed to have another interview added to the list for me, bringing the total number to 6. Not bad for a weekend. 

The best thing about conferences like these is that you get feedback from the recruiter that was given to them by the people who just interviewed you. It’s a great way to improve upon your interviewing skills, because if you were doing this on your own, you generally don’t get any reply from the company at all, other than a, “Thank you for coming,” if you’re lucky. Another big plus was just getting a better understanding of the hiring conference structure. On day 1, all of the candidates got briefed on the different companies and positions, giving us some opportunities to fine-tune what we would be saying during the interviews. On day 2 and 3, interviews were lined up throughout the day, in various hotel rooms at the conference. I quickly learned that I had to be on my game and well prepared before showing up, because some interview were back-to-back and the companies might be from widely different industries (energy vs. pharmaceuticals), the positions could be completely different (project management vs. sales), or the companies might be direct competitors. Keeping everything straight required a lot of reviewing of the notes from the briefs on Day 1. One final benefit — when you get that many interviews in a row, you start getting used to the pressure and you get more comfortable just going through it. 

I did reasonably well at the conference and had the opportunity to line up a few follow up interviews afterward. While I still had little interest in taking most of these jobs, I still wanted to continue the process for as long as possible to learn as much as I could. I didn’t feel like I was being disingenuous with any of these companies. If I was truly impressed with a position, I might take it. That just wasn’t my priority at the time. And I’m glad I went through with the follow ups because it’s a totally different game than going for job interviews at a conference. It ended up being quite the rigmarole, coordinating follow ups around working hours, taking phone calls at all hours, and using leave to go on more interviews.  It’s true what they say, looking for a job is a full time job in itself, and it certainly felt like I was balancing two jobs, my day job and my job search, at times. And the interviews weren’t all sit-downs, one-on-one. Now I’d be visiting offices, going on sales calls, or interviewing on the phone. Getting placed in these scenarios was exactly what I was trying to learn more about. And I saw that getting a job is a lot longer process than I’d imagined.

In the end, I didn’t take a job from this first round of interviews, although I did come close. It was well worth the effort still, as I was far better prepared for my interviews and follow-ups at later conferences, where I eventually did take an offer. If you’re in a position where you can take an opportunity like this to learn and fail with little consequences, I would suggest going for it. Getting that experience was just as valuable to me, and probably far more so, than just going over interview questions and refining my resume all day. All of this experience was invaluable for my next run of interviews about a month later. I was more confident, had well refined answers, and was more prepared to answer questions about my background. That’s why I’d suggest taking just about any interview you can early on in the process and to take it as far as you can, if only to get more comfortable with the process.

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