By Kimberly N. Do and Dr John Sullivan
ERE August 10, 2015
What’s wrong with college recruiting? Well as a result of years of underfunding, the answer may, unfortunately, be “almost everything.” Nearly every organization is currently struggling to recruit its needed college talent, because after years of reduced hiring, the demand for college hires is up almost 10 percent this year. The other major reason why corporate university recruiting programs are struggling is because, during the recent economic downturn, most college recruiting budgets have at best been stagnant. As a result, most college programs haven’t been modernized or updated in years and very few new recruiting features have been added.
Although university recruiting programs haven’t been updated, the environment in which they operate has been changing dramatically. During the last few years, universities themselves and the ways that students can earn degrees have changed a great deal. Other factors that have changed include the expectations of college grads, the visibility of college students, the ways that college students communicate, and finally how they look for jobs. Considering all these changes, it’s easy to see why many corporate university recruiting programs are already or will soon become ineffective.
If your organization needs to dramatically improve its university recruiting results, the authors of this article recommend a dual course of action. First, start by identifying the elements of your existing university recruiting program that require upgrading or modernizing (the topic of this article). And after that update is completed, next select a handful of bold new “best practices” that should be added to your recruiting process. (A list of these bold best practices will be covered in a follow-up article entitled “Bold Best Practices That You Should Add to Your University Recruiting Process” that will be published on ERE.net on 8/16/15.)
Let’s shift our focus toward identifying the existing recruiting process steps and components that require updating, and see how relatively small changes can make them more effective.
Which Existing Steps in University Recruiting Require Updating?
There’s no need to place any blame. Most of the traditional components or steps in university recruiting simply haven’t kept pace with the changing university and talent environment. So let’s examine why many of the traditional components have become dated, and explore simple and inexpensive ways to make these existing components more current and effective. (The steps that most urgently need modernization are listed first.)
The Top 10 University Recruiting Components That Require Upgrading
- Update your weak program success metrics — University recruiting may be the least measured of any segment of corporate recruiting. We have found that even “the big three” most commonly used experienced hire metrics like cost per hire, candidate/hiring manager satisfaction, and the quality of a hire are not measured in a majority of the university recruiting programs that we have researched. In the past, not having success metrics might have been okay. However, in today’s world, all functional programs in business are now required to justify their existence and to show that they are continually improving by using quality, quantity, cost, and timeline metrics. The most effective and easiest modernization action to take in the metric area would be to measure the satisfaction of your hiring managers with the quality of hire that your program produces each year. To implement, you must merely survey the managers who received new college hires at 6 and 12 months and simply ask them to assess new hire quality on a 1 to 10 scale (based on the manager’s perception of their on-the-job performance, their fit, and their retention rate). You can also use this quality of hire data to accurately determine which schools produce the best hires and what candidate assessment approaches best identify future top performers.
- Validate your screening and hiring criteria — recent research by Google has shown that many of the commonly used screening and hiring criteria simply do not predict success on the job. One software firm actually found that there was “zero statistically significant correlation between a college degree or a master’s degree and success as a software developer.” It’s also true because the work that grads do and the skill sets that new hires must have are constantly changing. So continually validate or prove that the screening criteria that you are currently using remain accurate predictors of on-the-job success. Fortunately, if you have measured the quality of hire, you can easily use correlation statistics to identify the factors that top performers all have in common but that below average performers lack. And don’t be surprised if you find that grades, the prestige of the school, and a candidate’s ability to answer brainteaser questions turn out to no longer be accurate predictors.
- Modernize your weak business case — in the past, funding university recruiting was simply “guaranteed.” However, now that every overhead function must fight for each budget dollar, you can’t expect to get sufficient funding unless you have a strong business case with data demonstrating the business impact in dollars. You can also eventually expect to be asked to calculate recruiting’s ROI, but we have yet to come across a program that has the expertise to calculate it. Updating your existing business case requires that you prove to cynical executives that college hires have superior on-the-job performance when compared to experienced hires. You must also quantify the value of college hires as a pool that will eventually become first-level managers, the value of their innovations, and the value of their advanced skills. If you expect to receive a higher level of funding, you must also demonstrate the much higher rate of return you receive when you recruit top students rather than average students.
- Rethink your reliance on campus career centers — the days where career centers completely controlled access to the students are long gone. It is now an ultra-competitive talent marketplace, where students can be found, assessed, interviewed, and hired without ever using the career center. Students can now get resume, interviewing, and career advice 24/7 on the Internet. So if you want to modernize your approach, realize that students will now find out about your firm through Vault, Universum, and Glassdoor. They can also find out about your jobs 24/7 on specialized student job boards, and interviews can now be held off campus.
- Update your approach for identifying top quality students — for years the only way to find students to target was through “resume books” or a resume submitted to the career center. But in an Internet and social media world, you can now also find top students from a particular school in a variety of ways. You can find them on social media, through an Internet search, or by finding their work, their writing, or their ideas online. In many cases, you can even skip the resume and use their LinkedIn profile for at least the initial screening process. We also now know that because students are so well-connected, there are new emerging “finding approaches” that involve referrals. These referrals can come from a variety of sources, including current students, students hired from last year’s class, student club officers, the references that students give, and the surprisingly accurate referrals from the grad assistants of the top professors.
- Update your strategy and convert it to a variable approach — global firms operate in a volatile world where economic conditions vary dramatically in different parts of the globe. That means that a company that operates in several different talent marketplaces simply can’t have a single fixed recruiting strategy. This is because as economic conditions change, so must the tools and approaches that you use to land the best college students. That means, for example, that when the competition for talent in a location suddenly heats up, the recruiting strategy in that location must shift from conservative to aggressive to meet the increased competition. Another area where recruiting strategies must be flexible is when the power in the recruiting relationship shifts. For example, currently 90 percent of recruiters report that the power in the recruiting relationship has shifted away from where it has been for years (favoring the employer) and toward the candidate. Top candidates are in the driver’s seat and the best have multiple job options. As a result, in order to be successful in this environment, recruiting must dramatically increase hiring speed (which Google found had an impact on college hiring success). It must also offer a great candidate experience and shift to an emphasis on excellence in “selling candidates.” This recent shift in the power has also resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of “start date no-shows.” As a result, recruiting strategies must now “shift” to include preboarding actions that maintain a close connection with the student to increase the chances that they will show up on their start date.
- Modernize the way you sell and close the deal — in the recent past during weak economic times, students would simply jump at nearly any job opportunities. But now that college students have multiple job options, it is much more difficult to sell them on any job. You can update and improve your offer acceptance process by using market research techniques to identify the different factors that cause students to reject or to say yes to a job and a firm.
- Update your approach to candidate assessment — the primary tool for assessing the skills and capabilities of candidates has for years been the face-to-face on-campus interview. But now, thanks to technology advances, live interviews can be done from almost anywhere, using the Internet or a mobile phone. We also now know that the negative diversity impact associated with most interviews can be partially reduced with “anonymous interviews.” And finally we now know that the accuracy of traditional interviews can be improved by giving the candidate real problems (that they will face on the job) to solve during the interview.
- Modernize your approach for selecting which schools to target — traditionally much of college recruiting has focused on recruiting at a few “top-tier schools,” based on the assumption that they produced the best college hires. But because metrics usage has become more prominent, we now know that in many cases the best new hires come from second-tier schools, virtual schools, and even from the pool of candidates who never attended college. If you begin to use data to update your school selection approach, you will not only find that top students don’t always attend the most prestigious schools but that there is less competition and more diversity at many lesser-known schools. Hires from second-tier and local universities may have higher retention rates and they may also be easier to manage because they have smaller egos and lower expectations. A modern approach uses statistics to determine which schools produce the best-performing new college hires. Statistically assess the talent from international schools, schools with a high diversity population, and virtual universities.
- Updated programs use market research to identify key recruiting message channels and content — many university recruiting programs rely on the gut instinct of their recruiters to identify the best way to communicate with their recruiting targets. But now that the number and variety of communications channels have exploded, a more precise market research approach is needed to identify the most effective ways to communicate. Recruiting messages may be sent via email, video, pictures, and text messages to social media sites, PCs, or the mobile phone. Under an updated model, highly desirable student targets are surveyed in order to identify the best “communication channels” where they would most likely view job postings and see and read company employer branding information. A/B testing and focus groups should also be used in order to identify the most effective and authentic message content. After a hire is made, they should also be surveyed to identify which communication channels and which messages actually had the most effect on getting them to apply and to accept.
Additional Recruiting Components That May Also Need Upgrading
- Modernizing your on-campus information sessions — traditionally one of the primary ways for getting job and company information to students was through on-campus information sessions with a company speaker. Unfortunately, these sessions can be problematic because the speeches are often not very exciting. Some students attend just for the free pizza and shrimp, while others simply don’t have the time to come to campus at night in order to attend. There is no data to show that these information sessions are effective. You can modernize your information-spreading approach by supplementing information sessions with online content, including blogs, videos, video games, online hangouts, testimonials from recent student hires, social media landing sites, and question-and-answer opportunities on your corporate college website. Students get more than half of their information about a firm from sources that are not controlled by the firm. So an updated approach requires you to use market research to identify exactly where students go to find out about a firm and what specific information excites them about a firm or a job.
- Update your position descriptions so that they are exciting — for years many companies have failed to provide accurate job descriptions covering what new hires will do. In other cases, the provided job descriptions were just painfully dull. If you want to modernize your approach, even minor tweaks in position descriptions and job postings will dramatically improve your results. Start by involving former college hires in the writing of the position descriptions, so that the content sounds more relevant and exciting. Next conduct a blind test comparing your position descriptions with those of your competitor firms to see which ones are the most exciting. Also, consider using video job descriptions and “day-in-the-life videos” that visually reveal the team’s excitement.
- Make university recruiting a continuous process — University recruiting programs have traditionally been highly active only during a few months of the fall and spring semesters. Now that universities offer so many variations of degree programs, many with multiple graduation dates, it makes sense to convert recruiting into a continuous process. That means that the process should be capable of recruiting and assessing students in the summer and during school breaks. Recruited students and interns can start the very day that they become available. A continuous recruiting process should continue to recruit graduates (away from other companies that initially landed them) for up to three years after their graduation date.
- Updated programs start recruiting early in a student’s academic career — traditionally most university recruiting programs target graduating seniors. However, recently, the competition for top college talent has become so intense that many top students are already taken before they complete their senior year. As a result, many firms are beginning their recruiting early in a student’s academic career by starting a subtle form of recruitment in their freshman year. Starting early gives students more time to get to know you, as a result of offering them virtual mentors, on-site visits, internships, and virtual projects.
- Modern programs provide a competitive advantage — for decades simply getting your fair share of graduates was the corporate goal. As a result, there was little variation in the cookie-cutter approaches that were used by most large firms. But now that firms are intensely competitive in almost every area, executives also now expect university recruiting to provide their firm with a competitive advantage. As a result, updated programs must include a competitive analysis covering what each firm is doing. And obviously you can’t have a competitive advantage if you use the same vendors, tools, and approaches as all of the other firms. So recruiting leaders must demonstrate that their approaches are both effective and unique. Continuous innovation in university recruiting is now required in order to stay at least one step ahead of your talent competitors.
- An updated approach must target innovators — while traditional university recruiting programs do target top performers, these rigid processes often inadvertently screen out pioneers and innovators. However, now that firms like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook have demonstrated the incredible economic value added by innovators, university programs must have a component that allows them to identify, assess, and successfully hire innovators. As part of that effort, hiring managers must be educated on specifically how to interview these innovators without being offended by their often highly critical comments.
- Updated programs must proactively “influence the influencers” — traditional recruiting programs only focused on selling the student on their job. But recent research now reveals that many individuals influence a student’s decision on which job to accept. As a result, many programs have already begun to try to influence a student’s parents. “Influence the influencers” efforts might also have to target others who we now know influence a student’s decision, including their best friends, their references, their mentors, their spouses, and anyone who is a close advisor.
Most would agree that the last handful of years has not been great ones for university recruiting. The professionals in the field have faced budget cuts, recruiter layoffs, and a reduced need for new college hires, but they still remain enthusiastic and professional. Now that the economic down period is over, the business environment, universities, and the recruiting environments have changed. As a result of those changes, recruiting leaders must identify which strategies and programs need to be immediately updated in order to meet current and future needs. It is our hope that this article and the research behind it will spur university recruiting leaders to update their current approaches, so that they can improve their recruiting results and become more competitive.