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Business and Economy

Networking from Home: Virtual Career Fair Connects Students and Employers

Written By Larry Peña

Facing his graduation this spring, mechanical engineering student Leonardo Franco-Muñoz worried that he was beginning his full-time job search at the worst possible time.

“I’ve known people who have had offers retracted for jobs and internships,” he said. “In this environment, it’s harder to get an interview. Everyone is frantic, just trying to network and make contact.”

Student Leonardo Franco-Muñoz poses for a photo in a black shirt
Fourth-year mechanical engineering student and job-seeker Leonardo Franco-Muñoz.

But at a recent event hosted online by Cal Poly Career Services, Franco-Muñoz was able to have a very promising conversation with a recruiter from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the top science and technology research institutions in the country.

"It gave me a glimmer of hope just to able to talk to a recruiter and know that there are companies out there that are hiring like crazy," he said. "It's always reassuring to speak to a person rather than blindly submitting applications."

Cal Poly held its first ever virtual career fair on April 29 and 30. The fair, hosted on Zoom, connected more than 650 students with 61 companies and organizations to discuss job and internship opportunities and apply for open positions.

“It went even better than we expected,” said Eileen Buecher, executive director of Career Services. “There was a lot of engagement and gratitude on this Learn by Doing experience, and all on a platform that was not intended for career fairs!”

During the two-day event, more than 400 students broke into groups to meet in a series of virtual meeting rooms for 90-minute chat sessions with employer representatives. More than 200 additional students submitted résumés for review by potential employers.

Participating employers included banks, medical groups, wineries, energy companies, construction and engineering firms, school districts, and research laboratories.

Maddie Lee, a statistics major who graduated this spring and works part time at Career Services, also met with representatives from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory during the fair. She was excited to learn about available data science jobs and the lab’s commitment to supporting women in STEM.

“I love being able to apply all the tools I have learned during my undergrad at Cal Poly to solve real world problems,” she said.

When COVID-19 emerged as a potential threat to campus in early spring, Career Services rushed to get their programs online and ahead of the curve. Buecher says that during spring break, the department staff virtualized the entire office.

Since the break, almost all their services, from career counseling to resume workshops to interview practice sessions, have been available online.

The office has even recently expanded their services to include a new program called Cal Poly Career Connections, a virtual mentoring program that links students and recent graduates with alumni. The program, a joint effort including all six colleges, the alumni office and the Cal Poly Alumni Association, aimed for 10 percent student participation when it launched last year. Currently 15 percent of Cal Poly students participate.

Buecher says that the Career Services job board currently has about half as many job postings as normal, and virtual career fair drew much smaller turnout than the on-campus events typically do.

That’s why continuing a robust set of offerings is so important, Buecher said.

“Students have a lot of fear and uncertainty right now,” she said. “It’s all about being honest and preparing them for the challenges, but also giving them hope and resources.”

“There are fewer job opportunities now than there were before March, but they’re still there,” said Lee, who is now looking for work. “I appreciate the amount of resources Career Services has available. They really want to hear what students need, and if they don’t already have it, they do what they can to make that available for you.”

For Buecher, it’s easy to see why employers would navigate the challenges of the virtual world to connect with Cal Poly students.

“Our students are excellent,” she said. “They work hard to get into Cal Poly, they work hard to stay, they’re smart and driven, and they’re connected to the culture and community here.”