Welcome to the virtual interview

The Baltimore Sun

Stephan Dowler created a digital character named Estephan Dollinger and fretted over his alter ego's hair and wardrobe. And he spent six hours exploring a virtual world called Second Life, where Internet users act out parallel lives.

After all, even in this three-dimensional social networking space, Dowler wants his virtual persona, known as an avatar, to look and act professionally.

That's because Dowler, or rather Dollinger, will be teleported to a virtual island on the digital universe for a job interview today. His avatar will be interviewed by another pixilated character representing a recruiter from Sodexho Inc., a Gaithersburg hospitality company, in what is being billed as the world's first virtual job fair.

"I spent many hours in it to be comfortable with my avatar. To make sure I could move around smoothly," said Dowler, 37, a sous chef from Frederick, who's looking for an executive chef or hospitality management job. "I was concerned about the way you're dressed. You see naked people in Second Life."

It was only a matter of time before companies went looking for job candidates in the virtual world. In an experiment that begins today and runs through Thursday, companies such as eBay Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft Corp., Sodexho, T-Mobile and Verizon Communications Inc. will hold a nationwide job fair in the cyberspace community called Second Life.

A growing number of people are using the Second Life Web community to converse with others through instant messaging and the animated characters they've created.

Second Life characters can do all sorts of things, such as date and buy clothes, so why not experiment with a virtual job fair where the companies can lure candidates to come work for them in the real world?

"We see this as a new vehicle that we will be a pioneer of reaching a new generation of candidates and connect them in a distinct way that's as entertaining as informative," said Kelly McCorkle, Verizon's manager of recruitment, operations and strategies. "We need to provide recruiters with the right tools to bring the right talent."

Employers already are using social networking Web sites and other forms of Internet recruiting to attract workers. Now they are going a step further to distinguish themselves from the pack as competition for talent intensifies.

A recent survey by Monster Worldwide, a top job search Web site, and Development Dimensions International, a talent management firm, found that 73 percent of staffing directors said competition for qualified candidates has increased since 2005, and 79 percent expect competition to intensify this year. (The survey polled 1,250 hiring managers around the world and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.)

"The companies are reaching out into many different creative ventures as they can because the market requires it," said Steve Tiufekchiev, associate director of employer development in the Office of Career Management at University of Maryland, College Park's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

To that end, companies are creating pages on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to attract college students and other tech conversant people. Others are supplementing their career pages on their corporate Web sites with recruiting blogs and videos featuring interviews with current employees.

John Refo, director of marketing for TMP Worldwide, a New York recruitment advertising agency, which is hosting the Second Life career fair, said companies are increasingly seeking new and innovative ways to engage job seekers.

Second Life "is a perfect way for job seekers and recruiters to come together in an unique, fun and branded environment," Refo said.

In the Second Life universe, users can create avatars who are as varied and different as can be imagined.

Although relationships formed among Second Lifers are mostly anonymous, that won't be the case for the virtual interviews starting today.

Because there is some pre-screening involved in the recruiting event, employers say they'll know the person on the other end.

The potential downside is that a job candidate's avatar could work against him if it is too over the top. Those who "pass" the Second Life interviews will be sought out by the companies in the real world.

HP, Sodexho and Verizon are looking for college graduates and other young people for entry-level jobs across their businesses nationwide as well as more experienced folks with a variety of skills in human resources, information technology, sales and other fields.

"It's an opportunity we believe will provide a real rich experience for the job seekers in a context where they're already comfortable," said Betty Smith, HP's university recruiting manager for the Americas. "That's what makes it different. Using existing social networking tools like Second Life is taking HP where the candidates already are."

At the same time, recruiters say they're seeking people who are willing to experiment with this new recruiting process.

"We want to be doing creative and innovative things," said Arie Ball, Sodexho's vice president of sourcing and talent, whose avatar will oversee its Second Life recruiting event. "It's going to attract innovative and creative people."

To participate in the Second Life job fair, applicants must register and submit a resume on the event's Web site. Participating companies are contacting candidates they're interested in pursuing in virtual interviews.

First-time Second Lifers then can get a quick introduction and orientation on how to interact in the virtual world.

Once teleported to TMP Island, job candidates will be directed to a company's building, where interviews will take place via instant messaging chats.

Besides the interviews, candidates also can ask questions and access a variety of information on the company through videos or PowerPoint presentations.

Compared with traditional phone interviews used early in recruiting, participating companies say a Second Life interview is more interactive.

"You're talking to the avatar and gesturing toward each other," said Ball, of Sodexho, describing the interaction. "You could shake hands. You could hand them resumes and exchange things. It's very different than a phone interview."

Because the Second Life venture is new, HP, Sodexho and Verizon say they haven't set any specific goals on the number of eventual hires. So far, they say they've seen a good number of qualified applicants.

Each company is expected to evaluate the outcomes of the event. HP, for example, will look to see if this venture can be expanded to its global recruiting efforts.

"Simply by being part of that they're sending a very loud and very public message to Gen 'Y' that we understand that you congregate in different ways than we as baby boomers did when we were your age or do now," said Steven Rothberg, founder of collegerecruiter.com, which is promoting the job fair.

"We want to recruit you, and we're going to demonstrate to you that we're listening to who you are, and we are willing to adopt our organization to fit your needs and wants because we need you."

After some fuss, Dowler created an avatar he was comfortable representing him in the virtual interview: Skinny body with light brown hair, wearing dark jeans and a long sleeve blue shirt underneath a white polo shirt.

Dowler said he was limited in his features and clothing choices. Second Lifers can buy additional clothes and other products using so-called Linden dollars, which can be earned on Second Life or bought with real money.

"It sounds kind of cool," Dowler said yesterday. "But I really don't know how it'll be yet. Or how it's going to be interacting."

Regardless, Dowler said he plans to have fun and hope for the best.

"I'd really like to get a job," he said. "I think Sodexho will be a good company to work for."

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

Second Life career fair

What is Second Life?

It describes itself as a "3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents." More than 6 million people have visited the virtual community. Users create characters known as avatars to interact with others.

How does the virtual job fair work?

Interested job-seekers must register at the event's Web site, http:--networkinworld.jobs/default.aspx, to create an avatar and participate in in-world interviews. Once you're accepted, you'll receive an e-mail with a link to the TMP Island on Second Life where the job fair will take place. The job fair starts today and ends Thursday. Interview slots have been filled up but the company said cancellations may open up slots. Your avatar is teleported onto the island, where you can meet and chat with other avatars representing recruiters. Conversations and interviews will take place via instant messaging chats. For Second Life newbies, some employers will provide phone interviews.

Who's participating?

EBay, HP, Microsoft, Sodexho, T-Mobile and Verizon

[Source: Secondlife.com, TMP Worldwide]

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