I got there about an hour after it started.
“All the jobs are going to be gone!” I muttered. “Look at all these industrious go-getters.”
The undergrads arrayed themselves in queues ahead of me, shuffling compliantly up to the greeters to swipe their identification cards at the digital check-in kiosk.
I’d been to a job fair before, back in 2007 at Kent State, when I was these people’s age. In the Midwest, business casual is a polo shirt and Merona stain-resistant slacks. Some of these AU kids are sporting thousand dollar blouses, red-lacquered Louboutin soles clicking across the arena tiles. They look straight out of an advertisement for the Delta Skyclub Executive Club. I adjust my tie nervously, my crappy Windsor knot trying to uncoil itself and slide into a rumpled scrap at my feet.
I wonder, is the check-in for security purposes, to prevent some dangerous cretin infiltrating the grounds? Is it to subscribe us to a hundred mailing lists from the marketing departments of the corporate booths below? Or is it to block carpetbagging outsiders from George Mason or Georgetown from taking our jobs? Would an alumn with an expired card be able to wave through, or would they be asked to please leave, sir? I look at the kindly, smiling volunteer verifying credentials, and try to imagine her physically checking an unwanted applicant into the boards.
My ID worked, and I am handed a pamphlet-folder about the available booths and event co-sponsors and press forward into the crowd. Down a hallway and a flight of stairs, on my right lay an entrance I almost blunder through, before I see the red “EMPLOYERS ONLY” sign. A strange inversion, I thought, hustling down the stairs. There was a row of drinking fountains, with a few nervous students gulping mouthfuls of cold metallic hydration, and a sign reading “WATER BOTTLE REFILL STATION.” Beyond this, wrapping around the corner, lay the first booth, American University student jobs.
I am fortunate enough to already have one of those, a data-entry position updating graduate obituaries for the Alumni Development network. They pay me a fair wage and work around my schedule. It’s occasionally lonely, in a poorly trafficked corner of the office, and there’s a good amount of sitting and staring at a screen. But it’s a paycheck in an uncertain world, and I am a creative writing grad student.
Entry-level jobs are hard to find even for business and engineering students, much less fine arts… well, let’s call us optimists. We’ve all heard about the employment market. Lines around the block for a single graveyard shift fry cook position, employers sneering through a megaphone from behind barbed wire-wrapped turrets, trembling arms holding infants aloft and wailing “please God, just hire my baby!” as rats gnaw the faded resumes of the rejected. In 2015, a job is a job is a job. This fair is a zero-sum game, and every one of these applicants is a hungry and highly-qualified position filler hoping to box out all other hopefuls.
I take a lap. The booths, primarily manned tables with backdrops, are staggered in rows, facing one another. Wrapping around the entire arena floor, there is an empty square blocked-off in the center and then a helix of triple aisles snaking the sides, booths crammed along every edge. There are major corporate conglomerates, non-governmental organizations, law firms, real estate agencies, retail outlets, charities, advertising agencies and media outlets. The far corner is primarily huge government agencies, the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
I notice with some alarm that the line for the Drug Enforcement Administration is two dozen deep; do I really go to school with this many potential narcotics agents? I linger for a moment, perhaps they are bravely stepping one at a time to protest the War on Drugs? No, it’s just a series of blushing qualification inquiries and simpering resume exchanges. More people line up behind, grinning a tooth-drying rictus, hands white-knuckling their leather resume folders. I again reflect that this event is not for me, not my kind of room, not my day.
I stop at the Politico.com booth, there’s only one other person there, their recruiter already halfway through the spiel. Someone else steps from behind them, starts handing me papers with logos and small dark blocks of dense print on them, asking when I am due to graduate, looking up at my hairy, worn-out face; this spring perhaps?
“I’m already a graduate student,” I said. “Writing. M-F-A.”
“Oh, these are primarily unpaid internships for undergraduates. Unless, you’re looking for something like that?”
“No, not really. I’ve done those. My undergrad was in political science.”
“Well, maybe there’s something unorthodox for you here if you know a little programming? Any UI design suites, maybe some Python, Raspberry Pi, C++?”
“I kinda know how to Photoshop, or use Word. My current job uses Excel?”
“Oh… I’m so sorry. If you’d like to leave a resume, we can… let you know, if, something comes up.” She smiled, her eyes looking very sad for me. She knows I will likely die out there. I peel off a resume from my stack, hand it to her politely extended hand.
Many booths offer a similar experience. Someone waves me over, notes with some regret my relatively wizened appearance once up close, asks about my track to graduation and my near-term goals.
“I want a full-time job at decent pay, with opportunities for more pay later. Benefits would be good, for me to stay living. Something that somewhat builds my skill base. Something a little challenging, not too monotonous or too exciting. You know, a normal job, like you used to see people have on the black and white television.”
“What can you do?”
“Oh, I can workshop the hell out of a third-person limited literary fiction narrative. I can write sci-fi stories, horror stories, fantasy, pretty much any speculative fiction. Otherwise, write, talk, both of those only in, well, English. Tie my shoes, tie a tie. Basic math. Lift moderate objects. Standard paperwork. The level of digital skills necessary for middle level social functioning these days. Basically anything you can take the time to sit and teach me to do…”
“Are you fluent in Linux Eggnog 7 or Adobe Crawdaddy Plus?”
“Um… yes, actually…” I can probably learn it on YouTube tutorial, right?
“Ha! Those two were a trick question, get out of here!”
And so on.
One booth was very interested in the fact that I already had a bachelor’s degree, because it meant according to company policy I was qualified to be left alone with their mentally and physically disabled clients. One booth asked if I love working with needy animals. One booth almost instantly began asking when I could come in, so I could get started with their groovy street-level direct-marketing menu and flier initiatives. One booth was enthusiastically chatting with a prospect in fluent Japanese, and laughing at his perfectly timed jokes. Something here for everyone, except perhaps myself.
I approached the Apple booth, knowing the futility of the endeavor, yet pulled toward the gleaming edifice like it’s housing a magnet full of cash. I’m shaking hands and babbling at the large man. “Maybe some kind of marketing internship, a paid marketing internship for Apple? I could be good at that, maybe even great! I mean, it’s an innovative company right, maybe you are looking outside the box for creative thinkers, the next Steve Jobs?”
“Well,” the guy said, “I dunno about all that. We are here specifically hiring for Apple retail stores, so…”
One hiring manager for the Consumer Electronics Association actually began critiquing my resume while I was standing there. “Let me do you a favor,” she said, clicking her pen and swiping at the carefully arranged Helvetica. “This is totally unnecessary. This is irrelevant. This is irrelevant. This is actually more of a disqualification for us. Irrelevant. Unnecessary. Oh, I mean, come on. This is fine. This is good, but that right there just ruins it. This is irrelevant. Anyway. Here you go,” she said, handing me back the ink-soaked page. “Maybe we aren’t for you but with a few changes you may be able to find someone to take you.”
I walk away. A few seconds later, she tapped my elbow, turned me around.
“I hope that wasn’t too discouraging, I know it’s hard out there. Keep trying.”
“‘Its fine,” I choke, “not personal.” It’s just a page listing all my skills, employment history and education being total garbage, that’s all. No big deal.
The next booth I approach is heaped with free stuff. The job fair is an excellent opportunity for freebies and I have already gathered pens, fridge magnets, stickers, decals, pencils, pamphlets and business cards to hopefully burn underneath a can of government ravioli when I end up living under a bridge this winter. I collect one of this booth’s bumper stickers, imagine desperately warming my frostbitten hands over the scrap of sticky laminate paper in the three or four seconds it flames up, before curling dark and crispy into smoke.
“Hi,” the person at the desk says. “What are you looking for?”
“Do you have any jobs here, or just internships?”
“Well, they’re internships…”
I sigh. “Well, thank you anyway…”
“Paid internships,” she finishes. “Full time is available.”
“Oh?” I say, some tone of hope returning to my voice. “Doing what?”
“We are looking for content writers for a political humor site based in Alexandria.”
“Really.” It’s not a question, just a flat pronouncement of wonder.
“Yes, do you have any relevant skills or experience for that?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
A week of emails exchanges later, a door buzzes, and I am walking into an executive meet-and-greet in their deluxe head office in Old Town. It is designed somewhat like a Chipotle restaurant and Google headquarters had a baby whiskey bar. Programmers lounge at monitors, but the content producers have their own room, standing desks at writing stations. My boss looks happy to see me, as if glad I was able to navigate all the way across the Potomac.
“So glad you made it! We are really looking forward to working with you. Hey, this is the guy who wrote the great emails!”
“Oh, you’re him! Great to have you here”
“The feeling is mutual, and this place is amazing.” I mean it, it really is. “Just checking, I did get the job, right?”
Living in the 21st century is waiting for the other shoe to drop. I can’t imagine walking out of here without confirmation, waiting days more to hear something final. I already quit my desk job for this.
She smiles, cocking an eyebrow. “You got it man. Right.”
I got it. Right. I went to the AU job fair as a creative writing student, on assignment from American’s own Café Americain to write this very article, and I ended up accepting a paid creative writing job. I got a chance that I would have never located on my own. Not every booth is going to offer something for everyone, and not everyone is qualified for every opportunity. But it is unquestionable that you miss shots you don’t take, and though I could obviously be an outlier, my AU job fair success rate was 100%. This university and this department has officially done right by me at every turn of this process: it brought the employer in, and it brought me in front of the employer. No matter your background or interests, no matter if you already have a job – if you’re an AU student, I would highly recommend you give next semester’s job fair your best shot. You never know what you doors might open for you.
James Fruit is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.