The Future of Graduate Recruitment

Graduate recruitment has always been of great professional interest to me, in fact my first ever digital recruitment project was creating the strategy and project managing the build for Siemens first ever graduate recruitment site in 1999.  What has always frustrated me though is the lack of progressive thinking from many employers in their approach to recruiting graduates. Uptake of new technologies has, with a few notable exceptions, always been incredibly slow and in my opinion much of the overall thinking that goes into corporate graduate recruiting strategies is outdated and in danger of fast becoming irrelevant. A bold sweeping statement I know but let me explain what I mean.

A few months ago I was at a conference and asked two graduate recruitment managers from two very well known blue chips why they only focused their recruitment efforts on a small number of specific universities and how they choose these institutions in the first place. The first graduate recruiter told me that they only wanted the best graduates so focused only on the best universities. So far perhaps so logical, however when I pressed the point and asked what criteria they used for selecting which universities were the best, I was told that they didn’t have any criteria they just targeted the same universities every year because they were ones they always target.  The second graduate recruiter gave pretty much the same answer but at least added some slightly more enlightened insight by saying they would like to broaden their number of target institutions but were worried about diluting their brand by not being able to maintain the same level of high quality, high touch campus presence.

I can understand why the target institution thinking was important even in the recent past. With so many universities and students out there and graduate recruiters relying on traditional communication strategies, it was important for them to build these kinds of filters into the process to maximize their resources in order to get the best results. However things change and behaviors should evolve.

In Clay Shirky’s excellent book Cognitive Surplus he describes how human beings are often forced to take on board behaviors that can become the established way of doing things but are actually unnatural to the brain and quickly change when technology develops to replace them. His example is remembering phone numbers and although all of us over a certain age developed strategies for remembering lots of these long numbers, we quickly abandoned them when mobile phone address books became ubiquitous.  I feel very strongly that this kind of shift needs to happen in the minds of graduate recruiters.  The old filters, strategies and ways of doing things need to change quickly as there are two major forces that are dictating the need for huge change in the future.

The first of these is the market itself. With the onset of £9000 tuition fees and the current high levels of graduate unemployment, it is inevitable that companies should be thinking about their future talent strategies in a different way.  If employers still want to attract the best young talent in the years to come targeting the same old universities with the same old methods isn’t the way forward. The people who can afford to go on to further study in the future are likely to prioritise proximity, affordability and flexibility as key criteria in their choice of institution rather than previous reputation. That is if they decide to go to University at all! There will be a massive fragmentation in the market and I don’t believe using the strategic shortcut of targeting specific institutions is going to deliver the required results.

The second force driving the future is the ways in which the social web and social technologies are enhancing the way people communicate. I recently did some work for one of the more forward thinking graduate employers and what became really clear quickly is that today’s students are keen to enter into a relationship with potential employers early if there some kind of payoff for them (this doesn’t have to necessarily be an eventual job offer either). They also have a genuine desire to self organise and support each other in their job hunt. Add in the fact that they are most connected generation on the planet and it is fairly clear that the traditional graduate brochures, posters and flat websites aren’t going to provide the collaborative brand experience they are looking for.

I think this all points to a clear view of the future and if employers think about this strategically they can actually offset these forces against each other. Fragmentation in the geographic distribution of talent isn’t as much of a problem if companies have a properly thought out social engagement strategy. I believe that finally we have the basis for employers to provide the same high quality person-to-person experience online as they have done on campus in the past. The social web offers the chance of one-to-many and peer-to-peer dialogues in a way that the “virtual careers fairs” of the past never could.

It’s great to see some brands already experimenting with this and I’ve previously blogged about some great work from Unilever here and Deloitte here. However more employers need to be looking at this area closely. There is a learning curve to go through and I wholeheartedly believe that the first movers now will be securing the best talent for years to come. Whatever happens though it surely must be time to finally kill off the graduate brochure once and for all!

11 responses to “The Future of Graduate Recruitment

  1. garethmjones

    A train crash waiting to happen. Great post Matt. Unfortunately, most organisations tend only to change when the fan is covered in the proverbial. As you rightly point out, the dynamics are changing, and obviously so, but i fear many will wait until the full impact of these trends are upon them with the result that there graduate supply will dry up.

    I also think you make an interesting point about social job seeking:

    “They also have a genuine desire to self organise and support each other in their job hunt.”

    Socially supportive job hunting?! I discussed this recently in a blog post but most seemed to think i was talking out of my bottom!

    Interesting times….

  2. Matt

    I think if you look at Graduate Recruitment you’ll find a small number of very serious organizations followed by a long tail of laggers. I’m lucky to have worked for / led several leaders, most recently in global roles. Given you’re in the UK I’ll try and give a UK emphasis where I can. The following is therefore from a leaders perspective, though my conversations with peers suggests broadly similar approaches being taken by most firms in this group.

    In terms of approach any firm can position themselves on a continuum between two extreme points: broad scope, but shallow or deep and narrow. Some markets like the UK typically prefer broad, others, like here in Switzerland are narrow. Some industries usually go broad, others narrow. 10 years ago, excited by the opportunities opened by technology I favoured broad, more recently I’ve been a convert to narrow. In truth most will pursue a hybrid model.

    Which role you take will generally be based on 3 factors – research, statistical analysis of historical data and (given the high level sponsorship in many firms) political factors. Added to the latter in many firms might be the firms’ R&D relationships or policy and/or community & lobbying activities which should be coordinated with recruitment activities. As an example of the research that a leader will conduct, at a recent firm I allocated about 25% of my global budget to research including custom quantitative, materials testing, usability testing mostly done in 5 global locations. Some information, like a global employment reputation index, went to the board.

    On top of this we conducted a segmentation model based on student needs, resulting in a range of personas for use in designing communications. We then tried to map segments onto universities to develop strategies on a market and sometimes university level.

    The demographics that you note in the UK – and it’s been a gradual change over 10-15 years as students increasingly go to local universities – bring it in many ways more in line with other European markets. However, outside a few big cities that act as natural magnets, geography plays a major part in where and therefore with who students want to work. Peer interests from the students perspective is a huge driver to which firms and sectors interest them and the demand to work in industries outside the traditional milkround coverage is often very low. Whilst distribution of ability might be broad, distribution of interest usually isn’t.

    I mentioned an increasing personal preference towards depth rather than breadth. Overall I’ve come to realize that to really develop trust firms need to actively involved with students through their studies. I’ve seen the benefits of working with universities to develop firm-specific courses, providing lecturers, sponsoring and actively participating in projects. These are the things that build real trust but the time and budget requirements necessitate a narrow spread.

    As for technology, and especially social technology I have yet to find any instances where adding a new channel enables others to be made redundant (they usually meet specific needs, even traditional print). In fact what usually occurs is what is often called ‘3Es’ in multi-channel approaches – providing everything to everyone, everywhere which almost always adds cost without significantly increasing returns. As an early pioneer I do believe that there are roles for new communications technologies but that they must fit the needs of the students by meeting unmet, or under-met demands in natural ways. A final issue with social technologies is whilst cash-spend often is less than traditional media, it is at the expense of considerably higher staff involvement which can often make it more expensive.

    Sorry for the long ramble, I hope that it is useful.

  3. Paul Stephens

    Hi Matt – beyond social media engagement, do you think we will see the emergence of new (hyper) local student communities that serve that need for self organisation and support or do you think that route is already established. Financial pressure on students will force students to find ways of alleviating that pressure – which could make them enter the world of work earlier and offer graduate recruiters new challenges. Is social engagement the best route to manage fragmentation and changing behaviours?

  4. I think you raise several very valid points. I do feel though that social media should still be used (currently) as part of a wider marketing + attraction strategy. There is still a place for actual brochures/flyers and so on, as well as careers fair attendance etc.

    However, what is great about social media – as you point out – is that it allows and facilitates dialogue directly between students and employers in a way that has not been seen before. I think it enables employers to build future talent pools and help students really understand the culture of an organisation. This is very valuable when it comes to job applications.

    Re: fees in higher education, did you attend the recent Totaljobs “Graduate Answer Time” event last month? There is a group for this on LI and it addressed several of the issues surrounding how and why students will be selecting universities and the possible impact of this on graduate recruitment – and how recruiters might address this. Just thought you might be interested!

    Anyway, very interesting post as ever!

  5. A very thoughtful post as usual. It seems to me that there are some much broader issues at work than the communication channels that GenY and beyond will use with each other and the rest of the world. Perhaps companies need to rethink the pattern that dictates only the ‘original’ universities (or Ivy League, plus MIT/Stanford) in the US are the only universities that get the ‘best and the brightest’ students. As you point out, certainly the tuition fee challenge may change that.

    There are tons of really bright and engaging students going to universities up and down the land – who have not been on the Milk Round in the past and will probably miss the electronic replacement as well. The approach that Andrew Marritt describes in the comment on your blog is very interesting -his companies use research to identify where the students who are getting the most relevant education for their needs actuall are, rather than making the assumption that they are going to be at OxBridge (or equivalent).

    I encourage the group to talk about this – and to come along to SRCONF and debate with our outstanding speaker panel and other delegates.



  6. Excellent post.

    Social Media savvy employers will attract, at very little cost, some of the best talent because most students cannot operate with social media – Facebook etc.

  7. I’ve only been in the graduate space for little over a year, so can only offer a limited perspective. And with my current hat on, it’s likely to be a biased perspective.

    However, I have noticed an incredible disconnect between the changing behaviours of students and the changing behaviours of graduate recruiters. As you say there are some notable exceptions, but many are still ploughing the majority of their budgets on expensive print ads. An AGR survey published in their magazine last year showed that their members planned on spending 50% of their budget on print ads. Another survey in the same edition showed that 3% of students use print as their first choice for researching careers.

    Why is there such a wholesale embarkation from reality?!

  8. Hi Matt,

    Good points. I would add a few things to it.

    “Web 2.0” gave us, amongst many things, the ability to research brands and their products and services through the viewpoint of other average human beings. As these recommendations evolved from “a community” (such as eBay or even ‘other Amazon users’) into “my community” we’ve been able to get even more personalised insight into the brands/products/services that we buy into.

    The clever marketeers have been the ones that have seen that this can be a two-way process and have used this opportunity for dialogue to learn as much as they can about their audiences and tailor their proposition, or even their products and services to the things that they’ve learned about their customers. Some have even begun to involve these customers, or fans, in the product development process.

    I don’t know of many graduate recruiters (save for a few of the really sharp ones) that have really developed much insight about their graduate recruitment programme, their brand’s reputation, or even their graduate recruitment marketing campaign from the interactions that they are having with students on campus.

    Most still view these “new channels” as another place to flog the strapline (boy I’m angicized).

    Even fewer are looking at whether or not the people that they bring in are having any long-term impact inside the organisation, and using this to adjust which campuses they visit, how they promote themselves, or what type of interaction would be useful to them.

    The list of “top Universities” often tends to reflect the alma-maters of the hiring managers that are recruiting graduates, or a legacy list of places that “we’ve always gone to” (as the recruiter you spoke to confirmed) and little is ever done to determine whether or not these “best” schools are producing the “best” graduates… nor does anyone seem to know what the “best graduates for my organisation” are and looked into whether or not the “best” universities even have those types of graduates.

    I think that one element of the “future” of graduate recruitment is that some organisations will begin to use these new channels for dialogue to help students understand more about what “type of person” will be successful by sharing more about the inner workings of their business, their successes and failures and more importantly, the fact that they aren’t for everyone…

    Just a couple of initial thoughts. I’d be interested to see how this conversation evolves.

  9. Marianne Steen

    Hi Matt,

    Excellen post!

    I agree with your points of view. Especially the paragraph about the Generation diY. I have been working in the online recruitment industry since 1997. And it seems to me that many recruiters (not all!!) are more interested in people than in technology. Which obviously is okay – but what I don’t really get is that recruiters don’t experiment a little bit more – as jobseekers. Putting yourself in the jobseekers role makes you look at job search processes in a different way.

    By the way: I believe your thoughts may apply for more then just the graduates – such as people as you and me, people working online and using online media comfortably.

    However, one of the first lessons I learned when entering the online business, was that habits change much much slower than technology….

  10. Thanks for all the comments everyone, some great thoughts and opinions

    @Gareth I genuinely believe this is an audience who actually expect socially supported job hunting!

    @Andrew It sounds like your business has an interesting approach. You’re right about the resource question, the two examples I quote in my blog were successful as they properly planned the resources they would need to manage their social activity. This isn’t about cost and it isn’t about being just another channel, it is about moving from a broadcast model to a genuine conversational one

    @Paul I don’t have all the answers but it is certainly going to be a very interesting time!

    @Becky Thanks and yes there is always a place for a communication mix. However I’m convinced that a lot of graduate recruiters have got the balance wrong in favour of print for long time. There is a lot of research out there that says brochures are still important but for the most part the research is being published by agencies who make nice profit margins out of producing brochures!

    @Alan Yes agree and I’m sure the conference will be great!

    @John Thanks but I’m not quite sure what you mean

    @Adam I couldn’t agree more it is completely crazy

    @Drew You are absolutely spot on and I love your “another place to flog a strapline” bit!

    @Marianne Completely agree and with the pace of technological change getting ever faster unfortunately our industry is getting ever further behind

  11. Hi Matt…

    Just a question. Perhaps you (or we) could construct a post which helps those that want to be more pro-active in the future by offering some suggestions about what to do?

    I left off a point in my reponse, which was to say (right at the end after the “they aren’t for everyone” bit) that in addition to being able to get across more meaningful messages using SoMe, they will also be able to learn more about the types of students there are that their organisation appeals to, the Universities that they are coming from, and the level of engagement that they are able to achieve with the “right ones”…

    (That is, if they’ve spent any time or resource into actually knowing what makes someone “right”).

    Some are doing it, some don’t… but as you know, there are ways to use all of this stuff to get better and better at it…

    Thanks for sparking the dialogue.

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