Inside Purdue Engineering: Industrial Roundtable

The Industrial Roundtable career fair fulfilled a need for Purdue Engineering students when it started in 1980: Help get jobs. It's only grown since, now serving more than 10,000 students and welcoming more than 450 companies each year.

Alexa Stern was terrified.

As a first-year engineering student at Purdue, how was she supposed to talk to a recruiter at Industrial Roundtable? She was only three weeks into her freshman year and didn’t have a great resume, to be honest, and certainly didn’t have the kind of research and club experience they’d be looking for.

But Stern took the leap.

She got in line, handed a recruiter her resume and gave her elevator pitch. The initial part of the response was what she’d expected: The company wasn’t looking to hire freshmen at that time. But that wasn’t the end of the discussion.

And that was the surprise.

The recruiter actually gave Stern tips on how to tailor her resume, how to approach other interviews and didn’t seem to hold it against her that she was “extremely nervous.”

Drone view of 2019 IR
A drone view of Industrial Roundtable in 2019. 

“I was kind of taken aback by that because it shows recruiters are people, and they want to help you succeed,” Stern says, looking back, now a senior.

Stern’s story isn’t unique.

Student after student after student — and there have been upward of 100,000 who have attended IR since its inception in 1980 — have the same takeaways. For as much as the expectation would be that one of the nation’s largest student-run career fairs is about the students, meeting their needs, it’s so much more.

Since the first year of the Purdue Engineering Student Council (PESC) event, IR always has been a collaboration, a mutually beneficial arrangement between companies and students that perfectly lines up with PESC’s mission, which Stern now knows by heart as the council president and has seen first-hand.

“Our mission is serving students, serving industry and serving the community. To me, IR hits all three of those pillars,” said Stern, who had an internship with Eli Lilly over the summer, thanks to IR. “With serving students, Industrial Roundtable is the largest career fair that we put on at Purdue. So, for me, it’s a really tangible way to give back to Purdue Engineering students because we are helping them find jobs, hopefully helping them find their role as they move on beyond their undergraduate career. Then also serving industry, it’s a really great way to make connections from Purdue to the companies we’re serving. We do a lot of networking with them and making sure we’re treating them in a hospitable manner and making sure they feel welcome on campus as well.

“Just in general, I think it impacts the whole Purdue community. During the week of IR, it feels like campus is a little bit electric, especially over here on Memorial Mall, there’s a lot of excitement. So, to me, it’s just a big, tangible way to see how PESC can impact the Purdue community as well as our students.”

That was the goal from the beginning, more than 40 years ago.

But even those involved back then never imagined what Industrial Roundtable would become — an “Event of the Year” winner by the National Association of Engineering Student Councils multiple times, one of the largest events of its kind and a standard for other student-run organizations at campuses across the country.

“Industrial Roundtable is definitely a legacy, not only for Purdue Engineering as a whole but for PESC,” said Stern, a senior studying biological engineering. “I feel really proud of it, not only for the work that’s been done this year and the past couple years I’ve been on council, but also looking back 40-plus years. It’s really special to be a part of that and understand we’re having an impact not only on students now but also students down the line as we are continuing to set that precedent of getting things back in person.”

'Incredibly bold'

The Purdue Engineering Student Council wasn’t serving its mission in the late 1970s.

Only years after being formed in 1975, PESC became “defunct,” possibly because it became an elitist student organization. Simply, it stopped serving the students’ needs.

But in 1979, there was a revival.

Procter & Gamble recruiters
Procter & Gamble has had recruiters at Industrial Roundtable since the beginning, including this trip in 1984.

Cindy Niekamp, a sophomore industrial engineering student, volunteered to be part of it. Six months later, in January 1980, she was voted PESC president. It was quickly apparent to Niekamp that PESC needed money — and a purpose.

The group sent a survey to engineering students asking them to detail their needs and how could PESC help. The overwhelming response was students were frustrated with the career development office setup, Niekamp said. Students said they couldn’t get interviews. So Niekamp challenged PESC to deliver a response: Help students find jobs.

The brainstorming began.

The result was Industrial Roundtable, a career fair that would invite companies to campus to allow students and recruiters quality face-to-face interactions at a quantity that would be offered for the first time. The idea was novel for multiple reasons: Career fairs weren’t a common occurrence, a student-planned, -organized and -run event on the proposed scale was unheard of and few companies heavily invested in recruiting, then-IR Director Bob Deprez said.

Niekamp had a 36-member student council, and a specific committee was assembled within that group for IR.

“It was incredibly bold what we did,” said alumna Niekamp, looking back now at the beginnings of IR. “It was unbelievable, the energy of these 36. The types of students who were on this, kind of gritty, scrappy. They were all kind of entrepreneurial, (saying) let’s create something and let’s go big.

“This became my passion as well as many of the others on the student council during that period. I think we were also trying to prove ourselves to the campus that we are a legitimate organization because we were not a legitimate organization just a year or two before. The whole council future, really, was dependent on this.”

Prior to IR, students needed to look through books to research about companies and then send a letter in the mail to inquire about job opportunities — and they may never get confirmation it was received. They’d need to scour newspapers for potential opportunities. Maybe they’d have a family friend who had a connection that could get them in the door at a company. It was a grind, and the burden was on the student.

IR would work to solve those issues by facilitating company-student connections. The committee got to work creating a logo with “pencil and protractors,” designing buttons and promoting the event on campus via sidewalk chalk, posters and a printed newsletter. They were thinking the event likely would be geared toward juniors and seniors who were ready to graduate with engineering degrees, but they really had no way to control who attended. They had to fight to get a list of addresses for companies — the internet wasn’t an option — and Niekamp thinks then-College of Engineering Dean John C. Hancock offered a considerable assist in securing that from other administration. Armed with the list, PESC members typed up invitation letters and sent them to about 200 companies by mail.

One week before the start of fall 1980, PESC members came to campus to organize. The next week, “we were stunned by how many students came out,” Niekamp said.

“We had no way of predicting,” she said. “I just remember far more students came out than we expected, and that’s why the companies were happy.

“Just like any entrepreneur starts a business, it’s a pretty rudimentary, crude version, the first iteration. But it was highly successful, even in that crudest form. It’s become far more sophisticated and offering the student body far more. I guess we were there at the right time and the right moment and provided the essence, the basics, of what the students needed, and it’s been built on and made far more sophisticated and value added.”  

IR view from Hovde Hall, when it was held at the Engineering Mall
Before IR moved to Memorial Mall in the late 1980s, it was held in the engineering mall. 

IR continued to grow and expand.

By 1987, the career fair needed to move from the Engineering Mall to Memorial Mall, as the fair grew. For the 42nd annual IR in 2022, even Memorial Mall is starting to feel small. The maximum number of tables allowed on the mall is 305, so not all of the 450-plus companies can be set up for both days of the in-person event. About 35 percent of the companies will be in person both days, but the rest rotate.

In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, IR transitioned into a virtual fair for the first time. Adithya Iyengar was supposed to be on facilities that year but, without that as an option, he switched to registration and was getting 30-40 emails per day trying to communicate with companies that there still would be a career fair.

In 2021, then-IR Director Iyengar worked closely with Protect Purdue, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Diversity Jay Akridge and the department of health safety at Purdue to see if the event could resume as an in-person option. The answer: Yes — but with restrictions. They had to limit the number of companies they could host on the mall, had to enforce social distancing, couldn’t have walk-ins and no one could wait in lines. Everything was appointment-based, and it still was the biggest in-person event on campus that year, other than Boiler Gold Rush. (Two days were virtual — with 200-plus companies — and one was in person.)

The 2022 version will again be a hybrid affair on Sept. 13-15, this time the first two days in person and the last virtual. Ben Pekarek, 2022 IR director and a junior in the Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said the committee opted to keep the virtual portion for multiple reasons. For one, the option offers students an opportunity to schedule appointments with companies around their class schedules, knowing the appointment will only last 10 minutes and they’re able to get face time with a recruiter without waiting in line. Secondly, having a virtual platform means companies that wouldn’t necessarily travel to Purdue from the coasts still can participate — and that ultimately serves the students.

“The virtual component is good because it allows for students to connect with more companies that might meet their interests,” Pekarek said. “It has allowed students to actually meet with the manager of the team they would be working on, which is kind of amazing. They might be interested in a factory, working on a line, process improvement. They can have that first interaction with the floor manager or the engineer they’d be working alongside of. It allows you to understand what you’re applying to and whether you’d be a good fit. These people can’t take time off the line to come to Purdue, but they’re able to interact immediately.”

Rewarding work

They’re on the massive lawn before the sun makes its appearance.

All PESC members are required to volunteer at Industrial Roundtable, and that means pre-dawn alarms to go lug cinder blocks and tables, set up tents, deliver company packages and stock water, among other logistics. Once the fair starts at 8 a.m., they’ll help at the registration table, bounce around to booths to deliver water, serve as a pep-talkers and encouragement-givers to nervous-looking students and much more.

On Day 2 in 2022, they’ll be back again at 4 a.m. and do it all over again before finishing up at about 7 p.m.

But those are just the requirements for the PESC members, not the seven students who are on the IR committee.

Students viewing bulletin board with job opportunities
The early days of IR relied on a much different communication for students to learn of companies attending the event. 

Preparation for that group starts in January, nine months in advance of the event. It has for 40-plus years. That’s when logistics like securing vendors, rentals, food and space reservations get squared away. The May-August focus is on companies, answering recruiter questions, changing registrations, making sure they can log into seminars on time and finalizing travel plans. By September, thoughts turn to getting 2,000 recruiters to show up at the same time at the same place, park in the same place, get on the shuttle in the same place, get packages shipped where they need to go and more, Pekarek said.

For the director, communication with company representatives is constant, adding as many as 50 emails per day related to IR, Pekarek and Iyengar said. Pekarek compared the role to a part-time job and Iyengar said it felt like a five-credit course, in terms of the commitment required.

And the grind is absolutely worth it.

“Something that’s really cool about my role as IR director is I get to communicate with these industry contacts and kind of be a medium for students and say, ‘This is why you should come here and this is why our students are going to be able to come in and make a difference from Day 1,’ ” Pekarek said.

“It’s 2,000 company representatives and 12,000 students and we can bring them all together at the same place and help companies meet their needs but also help students showcase what has made them great, the incredible things about Purdue. I feel like we have clubs that you can’t get involved in anywhere else, and that’s something that company recruiters definitely highlight to me and is a big selling point for our fair.  So I really like being able to, essentially, connect companies with the unique parts of our Boilermaker student body.”

IR extends beyond the lawn — and not just as it relates to the virtual component.

Just ask Heather Sledzinski.

Students waiting in line
Waiting to interview with companies actually provides students an opportunity to share ideas and tips. 

As programming director for IR in 2022, Sledzinski is responsible for coordinator company seminars before IR. Nearly 75 companies will be on campus Monday, the day before IR, to give informational presentations to students, sometimes collecting resumes and answering questions to give students an idea of what they’re looking for in a new hire.

Sledzinski, a sophomore, also organizes virtual seminars for companies through the Career Fair Plus website, and they run through the virtual app.

She also runs company interviews, working with the Purdue Center for Career Opportunities to facilitate when and where those will happen.

Prep Night offers a chance to get feedback on a student’s resume, elevator pitch and LinkedIn page, to get tips on what to wear and, even, reminders to stay hydrated. Held in one room in Stewart Center, the event typically is packed with students eager to listen and learn.

In short, PESC does all it can to make sure engineering students are ultimately prepared for what they’re getting ready to walk into.

“Everything we do leading up to (IR) is really for the students,” said Sledzinski, a chemical engineering major. “It’s a lot of work, but I chose this committee, and I wanted it, I fought for it, I love it. It’s so rewarding.”

Not just for the PESC members who are involved.

The hot spot

Delete, delete, delete. The influx of emails to college students these days can be overwhelming, so much so it can be difficult to capture attention.

Unless the subject line says “Industrial Roundtable.”

Those open rates are significant.

“Everybody recognizes the importance of the event. It is the premier hiring event,” Pekarek said. “It is where the majority of (engineering) students get their jobs. I would say it’s this nervous excitement. I kind of compare it to game day for the engineers. People come prepared. People are excited. People are nervous. But they’re ready to go.”

Recruiter meeting with student
IR welcomes more than 400 companies consistently now, due in part to the quality of potential workers available to fill internship, co-op and full-time opportunities. 

The environment naturally produces a feeling of solidarity, no matter a student’s major or year in school.

When students are in line, there’s an active dialogue, whether it’s reviewing resumes, offering best tips on approach to talking to recruiters, sharing which companies they’re interviewed with and, when applicable, giving pep talks to counter building nerves.

“The culture is so great. Everybody is willing to help each other out and pump each other up to go secure their dream jobs, possibly,” said junior Bobby Albertson, a member of PESC who is studying aeronautical and astronautical engineering. “People make friends in IR. It’s very common. You might make connections that last you your whole life. It’s not just about getting a job, it’s about networking within the school and out of the school with employers, but also making friends and having a good time.

“Everybody is in it together, so that energy and the positive atmosphere helps to get you through the long day of interviewing. That’s what makes IR IR.”

Students could have different goals for IR. Some may simply go to learn and experience it, while others are actively seeking an internship, co-op or full-time opportunity.

No matter that intention, IR fits those needs, said PESC member Michael Kadus. That’s exactly how it’s set up, to kick-start a professional career.

“There’s a host of different companies, small, medium, large companies, that are at IR, which present a lot of different opportunities for students of all different calibers, academic interests and academic levels as well as different levels of professional experience,” said Kadus, a senior studying industrial engineering. “I’ve done six internships during the course of my time at Purdue, and every single internship is a development experience. Those companies want to have you grow because by you growing, it helps them to grow, it helps develop their intern program and it helps develop a future employee for them. I think that’s a missing component that a lot of students don’t realize: Employers are here to help students grow and learn and to create the best possible version of themselves to end up contributing to toward their company and to be on their team and to work with them.”

No surprise, then, that Iyengar calls IR the “hot spot” for recruitment.

That’s the kind of feedback he got from companies when he was director, and that’s been a common refrain over the decades of IR.

Year after year after year, the same companies send representatives to target the elite-level talent Purdue Engineering generates. Few other universities can offer the depth of majors, robust student clubs and organizations, and student research experiences Purdue can.

Recruiter and student talking
Some companies contribute to scholarships in order to secure specific spots on the lawn. 

"At Purdue and IR, John Deere finds students that have well-rounded experiences both inside and outside of the classroom," said Stefani Hintz, a John Deere recruiter. "These experiences translate to the work students experience at Deere, focusing on innovative solutions to best serve our customers."

Some companies are so familiar with the event and the location, they’ll take advantage of one of the perks that comes with sponsoring a scholarship: Being able to pick their spot on the lawn. (Pekarek said more than $50,000 in scholarships is available for 2022, which prompted 300 student applications.) Perhaps there will be a specific tree a company knows will provide shade from what traditionally are hot and humid Indiana mid-September days.

Though there are no archival records, Procter & Gamble and Eli Lilly are two companies that have been consistently attending IR since the beginning or in the first several years.

It’s not just the companies that are familiar — it’s the literal faces representing them.

“A lot of the recruiters we do see coming back to Industrial Roundtable are Purdue alumni,” Stern said, “and I think that speaks to not only the culture of Purdue but the magic of Industrial Roundtable. Because Purdue alumni do want to come back and want to recruit Purdue students because they know the caliber and the quality of the interns and the full-time hires they’ll be getting from IR.”