I agree that being a living embodiment of a website isn't useful. Not as an HR rep, but as a hiring manager (the more engineer-looking person sitting next to the HR rep), I can say I LOVE career fairs, because it can give me a good sense of the market.
Unlike your other experiences, the company I worked for WAS empowered to take resumes, although hiring on the spot was a very, very rare activity. We did, in fact, bring a hiring manager like myself so that we could have instant feedback from a technical person on how aggressive to be in scheduling follow up interviews.
Let me try to tackle two thoughts:
1 - Why am I getting told to look at the website?
The HR rep and the hiring manager can only really recruit for the jobs they have on hand, which is what they want to fill in the near term. The company and college usually work together to have job opportunities ready at the career fair so that students who will want internships or permanent placements at the end of this term can have a realistic view of the opportunities and maybe even a potential first round interview at the hiring fair. Also, it's not unusual in a big company, for HR to be briefed mostly for the local area. Demographics show that recruiting for jobs far, far away is usually less fruitful than recruiting for jobs nearby a given college.
They can't do much more than that, so if you fit into one of the following boxes, you may be getting the "please look at the website" as a last resort:
No job in my major/interest - This is the far and away highest reason I've had to tell students to check our website. I've always worked in a big company, so there's a definite possibility that there IS a job in the company for you, but I honestly don't know of it, because it is nowhere near the campus/division I am recruiting for. This can get misdiagnosed when the candidate comes in dead certain of the job they want to do, and we simply don't have it. It can be most confusing in a big, big company, where the candidate may rightfully assume that this division can know enough about ALL divisions to represent them.
I'm not ready for a job yet, I just came to learn stuff - When you're a hiring manager sitting at a booth all day, you're still pretty happy to talk to future candidates, but if you don't want a job in the next 2-6 months, I won't know what the future is... the best I can tell you about future openings is to check the website, because the business is honestly variable enough that I can't make a good prediction
I want serious detail that is better rendered on a list or spreadsheet - if you need details on benefits, salary, or very specific info, either we have a take-home sheet for it, or we'll tell you to check the website. Specific details are way easier for us to handle this way.
2 - What CAN we talk about, then?
This may be where talking to a hiring manager is a very different experience than talking to HR, because you are talking to a potential boss. I'd say to any company that if you haven't tried talking a hiring manager into going to a career fair, you are missing out. Quite frankly, engineers do better talking to other engineers - and I think it worked well for both sides when we could have a hiring manager on hand to talk to students.
Here's the two big conversations that I thought were most useful to everyone:
Will I like this company?
It's always hard to cover all aspects of working in a company. It's hard enough with an outsider who has a long job history, it's harder still with a college student who hasn't had much experience. But anything you can do to get a sense of the company is a real win.
Things I would ask:
- Can you describe a typical work day or the work environment?
- What is team work like?
- Are there phases to the work? (better still if we can talk tech from the industry - for example, "do you do agile SW development?", "how do you structure your waterfall model?")
- What would I be doing when I start? What would I be doing a year from now?
- What are your career paths and specialties?
Any of these fairly open ended questions may lead to a further discussion.
As you talk, don't just listen to the answers, listen to how they are presented. Different managers from different organizations may say the same thing but in a very different way.
Think about whether this person is someone you'd want to work with or for...
Keep in mind that smart hiring managers are a little bit evil. When I have a super-smart, super likeable person on my team... guess who goes to the most career fairs? I find that the best bait for hiring smart people is to tempt them with the lure of other smart people.
Will this company like me?
The second question, because it hardly matters if you don't like the company.
But if you like what you see on round 1, start asking for tips. If you're early in your college education, you may not have a career in mind, but you can start getting tips for must take classes - particularly the electives. It's great to start building the connection between interesting careers and ways to prepare for them.
If you are in the throes of a near-term job hunt, have a resume ready and even if they can't take it, press them for feedback on gaps. Sadly, there can sometimes be a shortage of jobs in a given major, so the roughest feedback may be "switch majors".
Things to ask:
- what's your timeline for making decisions?
- are you looking for any particular start dates?
- I'm an X major, do you have any advice for good coursework to prepare for a job in your company?
- Can you give me any tips on my resume? Here's a copy.
- Is there anything I should be aware of when interviewing?
Caveat: I say all this from the other side of the table. As a hiring manager, I have my own stack of questions - if we have a chance of hiring you, I'll have questions about your coursework, projects you did, thoughts you have about your career. I'll learn a lot from this, and start to build a sense of the students at your school. IMO, that's my "payment" for a day away from the day to day work of my team - the reality check of what students are up to these days and what they want from their first job/internship.