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Our New York career expo: cold but determined

It’s sobering to see thousands of people lined up on a frigid, blustery February morning to find work. That may be why virtually every New York media outlet rushed Tuesday to tell the story of how 5,103 people stood in freezing temperatures to attend Women For Hire’s New York career expo at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan. “An even more depressing sight than my portfolio statement” wrote one blogger who lives near the Sheraton on 7th Avenue.

It was the biggest turnout yet in our decade of hosting career expos – a searing barometer of the battered economy. We moved lines as fast as we possibly could, but the wait was long and hard.
So cold that some job seekers gave up and went home. “I should’ve known, what with the record numbers of unemployment in this town,” said one who did. ”There’s a great metaphor in here somewhere: a long, twisting, never-ending line, stranded out in the cold among so many strange, surely more qualified faces, alone, not sure what to do, not sure what decision is best, feeling small and unimportant and so damn cold.”

I felt terrible that I didn’t think to serve hot chocolate on the lines. Next time, I promise. That, and hand warmers, too.

But despite all the frozen toes and fingers, there were – amazingly – just a handful of complaints from job seekers. Americans are a tough crowd, with a can-do spirit of optimism, resolve and true grit that will eventually defeat these bad times and get this nation moving again.

You could see it in the determined faces of people who walked through the doors to meet recruiters from more than 40 companies, have their resume critiqued, attend a seminar or just talk to someone who is in the same boat.

Our participating companies, government agencies and non-profits deserve a pat on the back: despite all the gloomy headlines and “nobody’s hiring” mentality, they showed up offering some 1,000 jobs.
Romona – out of work for three months — wrote me to say that this was her first time at a career expo, “I must admit that it was a little overwhelming,” she wrote. “I did walk away with some valuable tools.”

“I was pleasantly surprised by the high caliber of the various firms’ representatives, and even more so by the professionalism and content of the seminar speakers,” another woman wrote.

We put up a big laminated board for feedback. By the end of the day it was filled with hundreds of comments like this from Becky: “Waited two hours in the cold. Made some friends. Talked to some great companies. Was worth it.”

“It was really cold today but the mood was pretty upbeat as we all waited to be allowed inside,” one blogger wrote. “A cab driver riding down the block spotted someone he knew on the line and asked what was going on. When the cabbie’s friend responded “job fair”, the cabbie gave his buddy the thumbs up and told him he would get the job. We also had vendors trying to sell us gloves and hand warmers. I know they made a few bucks off of the freezing crowd. Despite the cold and all the long lines, it was worth the wait!”

My new Facebook friend Stephanie heeded my advice at our early morning seminar to connect through social networks. “Thank for such an incredible opportunity for many unemployed people in need. I, for one, needed your inspiration!”

Our next event in New York is not scheduled until the fall. But in light of Tuesday’s turnout it’s clear that New Yorkers need more of what we do best: connect smart and savvy women (and sometimes men) with great employers. We’ve already begun to plan a second event in New York this spring. The weather should be better by then. I hope.

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