Recruiting the soldiers of the bubble economy

June 23, 2011: 12:14 PM ET

A day at a tech startup jobs fair in New York clouds the question of who exactly is in demand -- the recruiters, or the recruited?

The 69th Regiment Armory, site of the Silicon Alley Talent Fair

The 69th Regiment Armory, site of the Silicon Alley Talent Fair

FORTUNE -- Last week, more than 1,200 people walked into an armory to be enlisted. But they were not there to join the military. They were there to be conscripted into a different American tradition: the boom and bust business cycle. They had come for the Silicon Alley Talent Fair. About 150 employers were waiting to induct them.

Three months ago, the idea for this jobs fair didn't yet exist. It was only created after another fair sold out, leaving dozens of companies on the outside looking in, upset they didn't have the same shot at talent as their competitors. But as so often happens with outcasts, they banded together, organizing a jobs fair of their own, this one far more inclusive for employers and recruits alike. Soon thereafter, they'd sold 1,200 tickets at a $10 face value, (Update: 1,100 tickets sold was the final count, with some going for as low as $5 thanks to coupon codes.) and coaxed many of the big and buzzy New York startups to buy tables. MeetUp, Canvas, bit.ly, Sonar, VYou, and others were there, looking for fresh blood.

To review: that's two job fairs in three months, featuring nearly 200 startups combined, all of them looking to hire 3,000 miles away from Silicon Valley. It is time to stop looking for indicators of a tech bubble. We're not going to get one better than that.

The jobseekers at the fair milled from table to table in a room tall enough to fit a stealth bomber standing on its nose. With each stop-n-chat they confronted the paradox that is a bubble in the midst of a recession-fueled 9% national unemployment rate. Which side was more in demand? Was it the employers who were offering commodities -- jobs that are so scarce they might decide an election? Or was the real demand for code, the engine that drives every startup forward until it burns off all its capital and/or the patience of its investors?

Nobody seemed to know. Jessica Thorpe, VP of Marketing at ExPo, a site that lets you post video reviews of products, said "it's been easy for us to get people to accept offers" even though she also thinks "the market's really tight." Acknowledging that there were far more engineers than employers at the fair, fledgling startups like LocalBonus, a small business rewards program, and Jumo, a social network for volunteers, were being picky. A "fit with our culture is extremely important," LocalBonus' founder Derek Webster told me. Which it surely is, but so is making a potential recruit think he's a unique asset. The startup isn't picking just anybody. It wants you.

So, unsure of who had the power in the relationship, both sides tried to impress one another. SeamlessWeb's table had a seemingly endless supply of cupcakes, iDeeli's recruiters paced in front of a huge balloon display dressed in branded, League of Their Own-style jerseys, FastSociety dusted off a backlit sign it first brought to SXSW that stood 10 ft. Profitably, an accounting startup featured in a past column, was stationed next to the sign with a bottle of whiskey. Adam Neary, Profitably's CEO, joked that it was a test: if a potential employee didn't like whiskey, he didn't belong at Profitably.

The potential recruits, meanwhile, were dressed in a wide range of their Startup Best, trying to understand what professionalism looks like in the age of the Zuckerberg hoodie. There was plenty of casual wear, but the shirt-and-tie reigned, another indicator that The Bubble was enticing people who would otherwise have no interest in the game.

Jean Louis Fragnay and Zakariaoh Bah were two of those suits. Fragnay had just graduated from Pace University with an MBA and was looking to join somebody else's startup after his own, a site that filtered customer reviews by how much time somebody had spent with the product, failed. Bah came to the U.S. from Guinea to study computer science at Brooklyn College. Now he gets to take part in the kind of craze an impoverished country like his never gets the opportunity to have. He'd been to one other job fair, but, despite his programming skills, hadn't found a job. Afterward he'd tell me he didn't have any better luck this time.

And there were certainly slots open for people like him. Tables were littered with signs begging for people who could speak Python, PHP, and Ruby, languages that formed their own exclusive lexicon. At least one startup, GroupCommerce, a white-label daily deals solution for publishers, has more than 15 positions open. Marketing and business development gigs were harder to come by, suggesting a scene flooded with early-stage companies that had no use for those pesky employees who actually figure out how to make money.

Tarek Pertew, the guy who organized all this, was tucked into a corner of the drill hall, fiddling with a hyperactive stereo playing MGMT. Sweat was beading on his nose, and he looked like he needed one of the 5,000 free beers waiting in a cooler nearby. Pertew, who runs a jobs-fair planning startup called MyWorkster, said this has been such a success -- the fair donated thousands of dollars in profits to charity -- that he was already planning another one for October. All in an effort to "drag the talent in."

But does it really need to be dragged? Helped by their gauzy coverage in the press, startup jobs have become ideal in an economy absent of them. For a certain class, working for a startup has become the idealistic fallback plan, a chance to find camaraderie and a higher cause in exchange for a bit of sacrifice.

After talking to Pertew, I headed for the doors. As I walked past the military exhibits, there were dozens of people waiting to get into the recruitment center.

--This was another installment of Fortune's regular column on startups and the tech bubble that may or may not exist. Drop and give me twenty in my inbox, or report for duty on Twitter.

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