The one-year anniversary of the pandemic gave many an opportunity to reminiscence about the Before Times – those golden days when people met and worked in-person, and even (eek!) shook hands.

But this March Susan Buckey, director of employer engagement at MassHire Downtown Boston Career Center, wasn’t looking back in reflection so much as looking forward to the next phase of pandemic networking. She was busy organizing a healthcare job fair on a new virtual platform called Premier Virtual.

The new platform enables MassHire Career Centers throughout the state to recreate the job fair experience in a whole new way online. Premier Virtual, which is used by more than 150 workforce boards nationwide, allows job-seekers to peruse virtual “booths” staffed by different employers. At each booth, job-seekers can learn more about an employer (via a web link, video, or text), live-chat with a recruiter, submit their resume, and – if the recruiter initiates it – have a one-on-one video conversation right then and there.

“Employers really like being able to engage with multiple job seekers, resolve questions in real time, and move things along,” Buckey said.

This screenshot shows a booth in Premier Virtual from the job-seeker’s perspective. The decor, logo, and avatar are customizable.

So why not just use a general video conferencing platform, like Zoom, you might wonder? At the start of the pandemic, of course, video conferencing was the primary option for virtual fairs, themselves a new concept. Job-seekers quickly noticed the advantages of attending the events online. They no longer had to physically go downtown, wait in line to enter the job fair room, and wait again for their chance to talk to a recruiter.

“When we were doing the Zoom job fairs,” Buckey said, “a lot of job-seekers said, ‘This is way better.’ The employer was able to say so much more that every job-seeker gets to hear.”

But the limitations became apparent, too. Buckey’s career center had to cut down the number of employers in a fair, because the format – presenting one-at-a-time – proved fatiguing if it ran too long. The presentation format was a product of the video conferencing platform itself. Designed for meetings and webinars, platforms like Zoom can’t readily accommodate the fluidity of a traditional job fair, which – with its spontaneous and simultaneous interactions – is much more akin to a party. And if you’ve ever attended a Zoom party of 50 or more people, you know how well that works. (It doesn’t.)

Premier Virtual builds on the virtues of the virtual realm while more closely mimicking the in-person environment. Each booth appears on the job-seeker’s screen as a virtual “room” of the employer’s design. A recruiter can easily pivot between conversations with different job-seekers using a chat text box. The video chat allows for face-to-face discussions that, unlike those in a crowded room, are truly private. And now, job-seekers can submit their resume to an employer during the job fair, instead of sending it afterward. If an employer likes what they see, they can invite the candidate to officially apply for a position. 

Buckey considers that in-fair resume handoff a big plus: “We try to eliminate as many steps and barriers as possible.”

Chris Mills, who develops job opportunities for veterans through the MassHire Department of Career Services, appreciates that with Premier Virtual, job fair data is much more accessible. Employers can download contact info of the job-seekers they spoke with for easy follow-up. Meanwhile, job fair organizers can review metrics that point to the relative strengths or weaknesses of the event, such as how many chats, video calls, or resume submissions took place, and with which employers.

“Now I can follow up with a company and say, ‘You’ve received 25 resumes for this job fair. Where do we stand?’” he said.

Mills says he’s also excited about new upgrades coming to the platform, such as the capacity to let job-seekers submit different resumes and cover letters and even a 5-minute “video resume.”

So, does this mean video resumes are the wave of the future? If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that no one knows what lies ahead. The state’s one-year license with Premier Virtual at least gives MassHire plenty of time to assess the trend in virtual job fairs – how they evolve, whether they’ll exist alongside in-person job fairs, or whether they go the way of the handshake.

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