About 18 months ago, recruiters from the National Security Agency started attending virtual career fairs -- online recruiting events hosted by such diverse entities as The Wall Street Journal and Monster.com. Lori Weltmann, manager of the Recruitment Services Division at NSA, was struck by how excited her employees were after working the fairs. "It was quick. It was easy. They felt like they were really connecting with candidates," she says. "After we did about a half dozen of these I said, 'Why can't we do one of our own?'" The agency could tailor a fair to draw the kind of tech-savvy candidates it was seeking, instead of wading through the more generalized community of job seekers attracted to the virtual forums sponsored by other organizations and companies, she thought.
"Lori always comes to us with new, innovative ideas," says Donny Weber, deputy chief of recruitment for NSA. Agency leaders liked the idea, and in February 2009, four months after Weltmann first pitched the idea, NSA hosted its first virtual job fair.
It was so successful, Ronald Sanders, then the chief human capital officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, asked NSA to brief other intelligence agencies about the effort. In March, using NSA's experience as the benchmark, nine agencies, including NSA, cooperated in hosting the first virtual intelligence career fair.
"This venue allowed us to have a huge reach all across the country. We didn't have to pay for travel expenses. We didn't have to pack boxes and ship our materials," Weltmann says, adding that the event's low carbon footprint allowed the agency to demonstrate the green credentials its competitors tout in recruiting from the same college-educated, highly skilled pool of potential employees.
"One of the big things was we could make this as big or as targeted as we wanted," she says. Essentially, the agency did both. Its first fair served as an open house to let prospective candidates talk with recruiters and learn about NSA and its opportunities. Ten days later, the agency held a more targeted virtual fair aimed at people with specific technical skills.
More than 8,000 people registered for the first virtual fair, and 5,000 actually attended -- a return rate of about 64 percent, higher than the industry average of 50 percent for such events, Weltmann says. "Trying to reach all of these people all over the country at one time would mean a lot of brick and mortar recruitment -- rent the venue, fly everybody out there, rent the cars, pay for hotels," she says. NSA hasn't done an exact cost comparison because there isn't really a comparable live event, Weltmann adds.
"If you were to do a [conventional job fair] in, say, San Francisco, you'd get that local population and maybe stretch one state out," Weber says. "To touch all the people we touched [in the virtual fair] you would have had to do a lot of individual events over the span of a month or two."
Virtual career fairs run the gamut from online chat sessions with recruiters to full-blown Second Life events modeled after the physical world, what Weltmann calls the Mercedes of virtual career fairs. NSA opted for the Mercedes-style event.
Participants, once they logged on, were greeted by Weber -- or at least his online avatar. They could go to the auditorium to attend scheduled briefings by NSA officials or spend time in a resource center gathering information and brochures on topics such as job benefits or transitioning to NSA from the military -- all of which were downloadable to a candidate's virtual briefcase. Or candidates could sign up for one-on-one chats with recruiters, or head to the lounge and mingle with other candidates and recruiters and drink virtual beverages and eat virtual cookies. "It was great. You wouldn't gain any weight," Weltmann says.
Eighty recruiters, including technical experts who supplement recruiting efforts, participated in the February 2009 fair, which was open from 3 to 8 p.m. "It was crazy busy," Weltmann says. "It was a learning experience for everybody."
NSA received 2,200 résumés within 12 hours after the first fair. The smaller, more targeted virtual fair 10 days later generated another 300 résumés. Recruiters and hiring managers across NSA then spent a couple of weeks going through the résumés and choosing about 200 candidates for a "career invitational" in April 2009. Of those, about 150 showed up for a day of interviews with hiring managers offering conditional job offers on the spot.
"When more than one hiring manager offered candidates jobs, that's when we knew we reached the skills they were looking for," Weltmann says.