The fairs serve a dual purpose. Employers fill vacancies remaining after the annual 'milk round' of recruitment visits to universities, and find candidates for fresh vacancies that have arisen in the meantime. They also help students who had an unsuccessful milk round, or who start looking for a job after their finals.
The number of employers at fairs has fallen recently because of the recession. Last year 127 took stands at the London Fair, nearly 100 fewer than in 1990. Most vacancies had been filled earlier in the year.
This year, the prospects seem uncertain. Many university careers services report that bookings from employers are down on this time last year, and the Queen's University of Belfast last week cancelled the Northern Ireland Graduate Recruitment Fair planned for 24 June.
However, some careers services report a sudden increase in bookings for their fairs in the past few days. There is evidence that employers are slowly starting to revise their vacancy numbers upwards, and that this year's fairs may be a key source of extra recruits as the economy starts to move out of recession.
Ann-Marie Martin, a senior careers adviser at the University of London Careers Service, says: 'We're beginning to see an upturn in graduate vacancies, although so far it's very small. But there is now enormous optimism among graduate employers. It all feels much more positive . . . a sense that we're coming out of the bad times.'
Twelve summer and three autumn fairs will be run by careers services. Another 10 are being run by the Student Industrial Society and a further 27 by Aiesec, an international body for students interested in business management. SIS and Aiesec fairs are usually run in tandem with careers services.
Two big two-day autumn fairs called Enterprise '93 are being organised by Careers in Industry with the careers services of Birmingham and Manchester Universities and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist), in association with the Independent and the support of the CBI. One will cover the North of England, the other the Midlands and the South.
Graduates also have a choice of recruitment fairs in Paris, Munich, Aachen, Brussels and other European locations.
In the longer term, fairs may become increasingly important as employers look beyond the traditional autumn intake of graduates. Louise Morris, graduate recruitment officer at the chartered accountancy firm of Stoy Hayward, notes that, like many other large firms, Stoy's already has two intakes a year. 'We've filled all our vacancies for this autumn, but not for next January,' she says. 'Rather than recruit for that intake in the autumn, when we start going back on the milk round, hopefully we'll do a lot of interviewing during the summer months and fill those places for January.'
Many recruiters are considering recruiting all year round - not only to suit themselves but also to take the pressure off students who have to cram their job hunting into the term when they are preparing for their finals. David Cross, director of Liverpool University careers service, says: 'Employer visits may no longer be concentrated purely at one time of the year. Employers may come to universities at different times during the academic year and I think they may come with a wider brief than at present . . . to give a presentation, to see a few final-year students who are ready to apply for jobs, to see people for sponsorship, and so forth. Graduate recruitment may be focused through the summer fairs rather than the traditional milk round.'
How can students make the best use of fairs? Mr Cross stresses the importance of preparation: 'Look very carefully at which organisations are attending to decide which ones you definitely want to go and see. Prepare in advance a good CV and a good standard application form.
'On the day, arrive early, and get hold of the local vacancy list, because there will probably be some employers who are additional to the original list. Sit down calmly and look through this list to check if there are any additional organisations you want to meet. I would certainly advise you to turn up looking smart and businesslike. Approach the whole thing as much as possible as an exercise in marketing yourself. Know what you're going to ask and be prepared to be a little bit pushy.
'Have fairly specific ideas about what you want to do. At the same time, try to be open- minded and use the opportunity to investigate one or two things that you wouldn't otherwise have done.'
Louise Morris reiterates this advice. She finds that students attending fairs differ from those she meets on the milk round. 'People on the milk round tend to have thought about their career earlier, planned it, and they are usually better researched. Those at fairs tend not to know so much . . . but we look for people who've done a lot of research on the profession, the exam system and type of work they'll be doing. We're certainly not looking for people who are using the fair as a last resort.'
A list of all the main recruitment fairs will be published in the 'Independent' each Thursday from 3 June to 1 July inclusive.