Job fairs are good politics, but unlikely to lead to workby Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio
SUPERIOR, Wis. — With national unemployment figures still high and an election looming, members of Congress are increasingly holding job fairs back in their home districts.
Minnesota lawmakers have announced several this year. While the fairs may not lead to jobs, they might make good politics for lawmakers eager to try to help constituents.
U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, a Republican who represents Minnesota's 8th District teamed up with U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin to host a job fair last week at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
Inside a big arena on the campus, dozens of job seekers are introduced themselves to recruiters for a variety of companies -- from car dealerships to health care networks. They chatted, left a resume, and moved to the next booth.
"I'm extroverted, so it works out OK," said Tom Furman of Duluth.
Furman was laid off from his job as a business developer for the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund over a year ago, and he's hungry for a new one.
"You know that the benefits are going to run out at some point, and you hate that idea, because it's your livelihood," he said. "I'm married, I have kids. I have responsibilities to these people, and I feel like I'm failing."
Cravaack said the economic recovery hinges on two things -- restoring the confidence of small business owners and connecting employers with potential workers.
"This is one of the ways we're going to do that," he said of the job fair.
Cravaack is not alone, according to Norm Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein, an expert on Congress, said across the country, politicians are organizing job fairs.
"It's for the obvious reasons," he said. "What better way do you have to show that you are concerned about unemployment and trying to do something about it."
Job Fairs are on the rise among Minnesota's delegation even as the state's jobless rate has fallen to levels last seen four years ago. In March, Minnesota's jobless rate was 5.8 percent, down from 8.5 percent in May and June of 2009.
Members of Minnesota's congressional delegation, particularly the Republicans, have held or announced at least five job fairs already this year, more than either of the prior two years.
Congressional job fairs have grown more popular at the same time there's been a decline in more traditional, town hall style meetings. According to CQ Roll Call, the total number of congressional town halls nationwide has dropped.
Among House members, Democrats on average held about half as many town halls last year as they did in 2009. House Republicans, on the other hand, held more.
Cravaack, for example, has hosted 28 town halls across his sprawling northeastern Minnesota district.
Ornstein said vocal critics have made town halls dangerous territory for politicians. Democrats learned that in 2009 during the debate over the federal health care overhaul, and last year Republicans were bombarded with calls to raise taxes on the wealthy. As a result, Ornstein said job fairs are a much safer venue.
"It's much better to show that you're visible and active in the community by doing a neutral job fair, where no one's going to be asking you tough and embarrassing questions," he said.
The problem is that job fairs rarely lead to job offers.
"Job fairs are usually not a great way for people to match up with companies," said John Challenger, CEO of the big outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
He said 150 human resources executives his firm surveyed in 2009 ranked job fairs as the least effective way to search for a job.
"There's often a lot of people there, and it can be an exercise in filling out applications," Challenger said. "That's why a lot of people go home from them frustrated."
An annual survey of big companies by the consulting firm CareerXroads indicates only two to three percent of new hires come through job fairs.
But that doesn't mean they're a waste of time for job seekers, CareerXroads co-founder Gerry Crispin.
"So if I haven't been out of the house and been pounding the computer and applying to a bunch of stupid companies that never respond to me, getting out of the house and going to a career fair and actually talking to people and engaging them, probably makes them a little more hopeful," Crispin said.
Still, Ornstein said, there's just not much politicians can do to create jobs.
"We've tried tax incentive [and] they can have some modest impact," Ornstein said. "We use the fiscal policy, but companies are going to respond to their own needs and figure out when it makes sense for them to hire new people."
A spokesman for Cravaack questioned the fairness of citing the CareerXroads survey, which involves large companies, noting the large number of small businesses at the Superior campus.
During the career fair, Cravaack was upbeat that the event would result in jobs.
"We just talked to several people," Cravaack said. "One guy, a veteran, said he had four good leads, so that's pretty exciting."
Cravaack is planning a second jobs fair in Brainerd, where the unemployment rate is 10 percent. His GOP colleagues, Reps. Erik Paulsen and John Kline have fairs slated for later this month.
- All Things Considered, 05/03/2012, 4:54 p.m.