All Quiet On the Campus Front? It Shouldn’t Be

Although the slow economy, slumping stock market and uncertain future have led to a slowdown in campus recruiting, we must be fleet of foot because things are changing. Corporate demand is down for many majors, including marketing, business, management, and the arts in general. Even the engineering and technical fields have had slowdowns. (Actually, there has never been much certainty of a job after graduation. Arts majors and “generic” engineers with little or no work experience have suffered mightily over the years. How many of you had a job in your pocket the day you graduated?) With a marketplace temporarily awash in experienced talent, many corporations are asking why they should spend scarce dollars trying to attract inexperienced new grads who will not be productive for months. Having been on the short side of the talent war for several years, organizations are now finding it easy to say “no” to a college recruiting program. After all, an experienced professional recruiter can most likely figure out how to contact and interview the soon-to-be graduated. Job boards and the Internet have opened all sorts of new channels to get in touch with students and to build an online relationship. Is anything gained by the campus face-to-face involvement? Do placement offices add any value? Add to this the fact that, contrary to popular thought, college recruiting is not cheaper than professional recruiting (although it probably could be). When the fees involved in promoting the company and sponsoring special events to attract minorities and to woo scarce engineering and technical majors, costs can soar. But as a matter of fact, there are many reasons why a college program makes more sense than ever right now. First of all, there are simply fewer college students in the pipelines than before. I have written extensively about the talent shortage that exists, particularly for technical graduates. I believe that organizations need to do all that they can to increase the potential pool of technical talent. This means investing in high school programs that encourage students to major in critical fields; it means working closely with colleges and universities to develop the programs that make their graduates employable; and it means hiring the fruits of that work. This is sometimes expensive, but always cheaper in the long run than the wage escalation that results from a short talent supply. We saw some of that escalation a couple of years ago, and the situation will get worse as we emerge from this slowdown and face the huge gaps that exist for computer scientists, programmers, almost all engineers, and many of the hard sciences. Accounting and healthcare are also suffering from talent shortages. A few thousand dollars sprinkled over a few campuses could decrease your overall employment costs significantly in coming years. Ask HP, IBM, Texas Instruments, and all the other organizations that have had college programs through the good and the bad times. Secondly, college is the only really cost effective way to get minority talent. But because of less-than-needed funding for scholarships and high school programs, we still do not have enough blacks, Hispanics and women in technical majors. We seem to prefer very expensive competitive bidding wars for the tiny supplies that are being graduated. In the 1999-2000 school year, fewer than 800 blacks and fewer than 900 Hispanics received a Master’s degree in an engineering-related discipline. When you consider that many will go on for a Ph.D. and that others will never practice engineering at all, you have a very small pool to draw from. The only logical approach is to encourage more young people to study in these fields and reward them with jobs at the end of the long cycle of study. And finally, college hires bring freshness to any organization, and can be effective transferees of academic theory and emerging research. They also bring networks and connections that can be tapped into for future recruiting. Yes, college recruiting is worth “it,” but we can certainly learn to do “it” better. Here are a few ideas, and I’d love any of your comments as well.

  1. Focus. Stop the general recruiting programs that cover many disciplines and many schools. Choose two or three disciplines that are most needed by your company and then match that need to a few campuses as close to your physical location as possible. Start coupling recruiting with internship programs and get employees involved on campus in laboratories or in the classroom. Internships and co-op programs return the greatest ROI of all programs.
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  3. Use the Internet. Use the Internet to find and communicate with students on campus. Send them literature and promotional information about your company electronically, and start a chat room list server for college students to talk to employees. Be sure you have a recruiting website that directly and specifically address the college student or new graduate. Make sure the website lists what majors you are hiring and what you are not, so that neither of you wastes time. Provide reasons why they should consider your organization. Take a look at Federated Department Store’s recruiting website for a good example.
  4. Mentor. Start an online mentoring or coaching program where volunteer employees offer students homework help, tutoring in math or science, or just plain advice.
  5. Develop and use online assessments. As a step to reducing the amount of face time needed on campus, use a variety of assessment tools to help the students understand your requirements and the culture of your organization. Take a look at Texas Instrument’s website for an idea of how a culture fit assessment can fit into a college web site. Every time you reduce the number of steps in the recruiting process or eliminate a trip to campus, you lower your overall costs.
  6. Bypass the placement office. Use the Internet to lessen or even eliminate the need to involve the placement office. Most of them offer very little value to the hiring companies and are increasingly bypassed by savvy students who make direct contact with prospective employers through the web. I will get a lot of letters for saying this, but in conversations with hundreds of top-notch students I have consistently heard that the placement office did not serve them well. You can collect email addresses of college students easily and email them directly with information. You can set up interviews online and develop an ongoing dialogue that will serve you and the student well because you will get to know one another better and uncover strengths and weaknesses.
  7. Hire for specific programs. Many of the best firms in the nation have been using cohort groups of new hires to enhance their experience and to quickly build a team with critical skills. For example, the financial community has been hiring and operating rotational programs of new MBA students for years. These programs have supplied a large portion of the entry-level managerial staff for many banks and brokerages. Similar programs have been used at Applied Material and at National Semiconductor for technical staff such as mechanical engineers and process engineers. The programs are competitive, selective and offer the new hire an educational opportunity. The firm gets enthusiasm, the best and the brightest and tremendous loyalty.

These are hard things to get from experienced and often jaded employees. Every year Wetfeet does a survey of college recruiting trends and happenings. I urge you to get a copy and learn from it, develop a strong web presence, and focus on answering the questions executives may bring on the value of these programs. Don’t let your recruiting be quiet on campus!

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

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