Candidates can assess their prospective colleagues at a jobs fair, writes Lynne Curry
In an economic epoch when there is more demand for IT professionals than supply, it is obvious why potential employers should turn to a jobs fair. Along with advertising, using agencies and offering incentives to their own staff to recruit for vacancies, it is another avenue of people- gathering. "We really cannot afford to leave any stone unturned,'' said one company.

But what's in it for the candidates? Apart from the opportunity to see a diversity of potential employers at once, a jobs fair provides an interesting reversal of the more traditional power balance. Instead of being judged at interview, the candidates are in the judging position and the onus of presenting the right impression much more on the recruiters, who are on display.

Rather than encountering possible employers from a position of disadvantage - asking for a job - candidates can assess them instead.

An indication of the culture of a company can be a useful guard against a disastrous appointment, but there are few opportunities for a candidate to gain this knowledge in advance. Some of the least successful appointments are made when people join organisations of which they have been given the wrong impression at interview, according to recruitment expert Jeff Grout, managing director of Robert Half International, a leading financial recruitment consultancy, which set up its own IT recruitment arm, RHI Consulting, three years ago.

"The person doing the interview is the person who, in the mind of the candidate, reflects the company. It is important to select the selector,'' says Grout, who has lectured large companies on the skills of successful recruitment. One of the factors he emphasises is that it is a two-way process, and the candidate needs to like the company as much as vice-versa.

"We also recommend as part of the selection process that a prospective candidate meets a prospective colleague so that they can ask the question, 'what's it really like to work here?' It has to be recognised that it's a two-way process.''

The informal environment of a jobs fair enables people to see a reasonable cross-section of the industry and to talk to technical representatives they might otherwise not meet, says Steve Holloway, personnel services manager of Farnborough-based computer services company Computeraid.

"You can get a feel for the culture after meeting people from the organisation,'' Mr Holloway says. Computeraid, which typically sends in teams of people to external customer sites, is looking for permanent staff with two or three years' experience and skills in Windows NT, the Microsoft applications, Novel, general networking disciplines and software development.

Peter Poulain, a partner in A&P Computer Services, which recruits for third-party companies, says job fairs have the advantage of personal contact. "Even in two or three minutes you can glean a bit about what people are like, and they can put a face and an identity to the company,'' he says.

Candidates can ask frank questions of their potential employers - or about the firms they could be working for - without worrying that it may count against them.