UNEMPLOYED FOR NEARLY three months, I recently attempted to find a reason to rise before noon by attending a "high-tech career fair." I thought it

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My day at the fair

Looking for work, but settling for peanut butter cups.

UNEMPLOYED FOR NEARLY three months, I recently attempted to find a reason to rise before noon by attending a "high-tech career fair." I thought it would be a good way to get my name out there and generate some interest in my attributes. I'm not a full-fledged computer geek, but I've worked in the industry on a symbiotic level through marketing, customer relations, and other non-techy positions. On the way to the big event I picked up Steve, my co- conspirator for the adventure. Steve has a job, a good one. He's a full-fledged computer geek complete with all the skills. Steve accompanied me for lack of anything better to do that day and perhaps a slight curiosity about what's out there. We stopped by Kinko's to pick up some watermarked parchment for my r鳵m鮠I paid $15.32, and we were off to the fair.

Intended to be a networking opportunity for employers and job seekers, the high-tech career fair felt more like a trade show. A maze of fabric-lined booths, candy bowls, and business cards occupied one floor of the new Stadium Exhibition Center. I paid $8 for parking. At first glance the fair possessed the energy of a Moroccan bazaar and the awkward nervousness of an alcohol-free corporate Christmas party. Booths swelled with glad-handing beefcakes and business-sassy skirt suits. HR reps waxed poetic about "thinking outside the box" as guys in ill-fitting slacks dished out r鳵m鳠like pamphlet pushers at the airport. Sandwich boards listing job titles flanked every booth. Web developers, database architects, and programmers were the favored catch of the day.

Initially I felt sympathetic toward some of the suits and the hairdos that crowned them. Then I realized that these were the people making contacts, filling out applications, and going home with opportunities. One recruiter asked me if I was familiar with SQL or SAP. I had never used the prior, but I suddenly began to feel like the latter. I took two steps back in my mind, and for the rest of the affair, I conducted myself not as an active participant but rather as a bewildered observer.

I soon came to realize that I would find my compatriots among the wandering and the horrified—those few who realized that "fast-paced" means chaotic, unorganized, and slick; "casual work environment" means "Wear your pajamas because you're never going home again"; and "bleeding-edge technology" means "Our network is riddled with bugs and crashes frequently."

With all the companies saying the same things, I resigned myself to judging them on the variety of sweets in their candy dishes. Everyone knows a hot start-up is determined not by its emerging technology but rather by the mountain of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups on its trade-show counter. A bowl of hard candy just doesn't cut it in this fast-paced job market anymore, especially if all the butterscotch has been pilfered. Some exhibitors offered nongastronomical treats such as penlights, key chains, hackysacks, and balloons. The hottest items this season were the foot-long bendy pen and the squishy stress ball (a favorite among fairgoers for years).

With one final sweep through the exhibition hall, Steve and I collected all the candy and trinkets we could get our hands on. We ducked under handshakes, reached behind recruiters, and squeezed though bottlenecks of rayon and tweed to get to the free stuff. I was completely unconcerned about finding a job; I knew full well I had nothing to offer these people and they had nothing for me.

Well-meaning recruiters would ask what I did for a living. "Blacksmith" was a favorite response, followed by "Is that a bowl of Snickers behind you?" I invented several fictitious software programs that I alone had mastered. "Right now I'm developing in Fergus 5.0, but I'm really leaning toward Clamtool for my relational database applications." The recruiters would smile and nod, either thinking I'm a computer rock star or dismissing me as a blathering moron. It made no difference to me.

My only concern was to distract them long enough for Steve to grab as many peanut M & M's as he could. We tore through the Exhibition Center like a pair of Kool-Aid-stained 10-year-olds at a wedding reception on Halloween. I justified my lost opportunities by stuffing my pockets with bottle openers and Kit Kats.

Steve and I inspected our stash as we headed to T.S. McHugh's. I'd made off with pens, candy, key chains, and the realization that I would have to cross yet another industry off my list of career possibilities. (I fear I'm back down to my original three: fireman, cowboy, and astronaut.) Steve ended up with a penlight, a mouse pad, and a newfound loyalty to the software giant that currently employs him. I spent $28.65 on booze and a light appetizer, while Steve talked about how much his job sucks. When all was said and done, the whole affair cost me $51.97. It resulted in one "decline" letter from Disney.com and the knowledge that my watermarked parchment r鳵m鳠would be recycled in some of Seattle's hottest cubicles.

 
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