"These two companies are in the same industry," says Steve Rothberg, CEO of CollegeRecruiter.com, "yet their perception of college interns is 180 degrees different."
Employers that don’t yet understand the strategic value that Gen Yers play in the labor force could suffer talent shortages in the future. This group of individuals is a critical source of workforce inventory—the batch of interns recruited this season can be harvested for entry-level positions next year.
"Companies need to think of interns not only as a source of educated yet inexpensive labor, but also as the next wave of leaders," Rothberg says. There are about 4 million U.S. college students, of whom 1.5 million to 1.75 million are in their junior or senior year—the prime years for internship recruitment.
The good news for employers is that there are far more students available than the number of internship openings. The bad news, however, is that the batch of high-potential candidates—those who rank high in their class or attend a brand-name college—is small, and the competition for them is fierce.
"The best students have tons opportunities being thrown at them," Rothberg says.
Breaking through the noise, while challenging, is not an impossible task. The most important measure that recruiters can take, says workforce consultant and author Sylvia Henderson, is to find out as much as possible about Gen Yers—their likes, their pet peeves, where they hang out, etc. This type intelligence paves the way to more effective targeting strategies.
The medium is the message
An employer that doesn’t use the appropriate tools to reach this finicky audience could be in for some big trouble, says Brian Krueger, president of CollegeGrad.com.
"Students will be hesitant to work for a company that they think is out of sync with them or with the times," he says. Employers that have a weak Internet presence are particularly susceptible to being overlooked or, even worse, snubbed by this segment.
A recent survey from CollegeGrad.com underscores just how important the Internet is for students looking to get their first job. The report, which polled 500 respondents, highlights that the Internet is by far the most widely used job search tool. Some 60 percent of the respondents say it was the best source to get information on entry-level jobs.
"There has been a fundamental shift in how college students conduct their job search," Krueger says. "As recent as 10 years ago, the Internet was only a minimal factor in the entry-level job search. Now it is the dominant way that college students search for entry-level jobs."
Job fairs ranked second, with almost 20 percent of survey participants noting it was the best source for finding out career information. College career centers and classmates ranked third and fourth, respectively.
Utilizing the appropriate media, however, won’t do the trick in attracting young talent unless the content is tailored to them, Henderson says. She recommends developing material, such as brochures or displays that specifically offers information about a company’s internship program. This is particularly important during career fairs, as it may not be overtly obvious that a company is also hunting for potential internship candidates in addition to full-timers.
The Internet, job fairs and career centers are all indispensable when it comes to reaching college students. But in order to build a consistent base of fans on campus and solidify a brand presence, employers are going to have to generate buzz as well.
Companies can gain ground on this important front by sponsoring special events, according to Rothberg. He cites MasterCard as an example of a company that is adept at organizing high-profile events that give it a competitive edge during recruiting season.
The company recently anchored its recruitment efforts around a special contest in which participants were required to write a story explaining who they were and why they want to work there. The event was marketed heavily on targeted Internet sites and on campuses, which helped to raise brand awareness.
"They gained a lot of momentum from these efforts," Rothberg says. But what he thought was exceptional about the marketing campaign was its pitch.
"It made it appealing to work for the company," he notes. "The students became the chasers instead of the other way around."
Although highly successful, MasterCard’s campaign was costly. Companies with tighter budgets can resort to several low-cost yet powerful tools that can be used to spread the word on campus, such as blogging or creating a profile on the social networking Web site Facebook, which draws millions of college students each day. Both of these methods are grossly underused, Rothberg says.
Blogging is not only an inexpensive tool to create brand awareness, but it can also play a critical role in quelling what Rothberg refers to as Gen Y’s obsession with transparency. He encourages companies to allow existing interns keep a journal of their daily experiences and post them on a special section of the corporate Web site.
Rothberg offers one note of caution: Don’t over-police the blogs. While the interns should be given certain guidelines for blogging, such as not disclosing sensitive information or the names of clients with whom they interact, they should be given a lot of freedom.
"If the blogs aren’t going to offer an honest depiction of what it is like to work at a company, the chances for failure are pretty high," Rothberg says. "These people are savvy and they place high value on transparency."
Creating a positive experience
Recruiting qualified talent is just one part of the equation in creating a successful internship program. "If you’re going to recruit at the same colleges next spring, you better make sure that the interns this year have a positive experience," Henderson says. "Word will spread around campus about the type of employer that you are—good or bad."
She recommends applying the same sound workforce management practices that full-time employees receive.
"Put yourself in their shoes," she says. "Treat them the way you would like to be treated"
Some measures include giving interns responsibilities that are meaningful. Chances are that fetching coffee and making copies won’t be yield a satisfactory experience, she explains. In addition, employers should be prepared to offer interns constructive feedback, both positive and negative.
Interns need mentoring. Given their lack of experience in the workforce, they may need guidance on issues that are otherwise common knowledge among full-time workers. For instance, employers should not assume that interns are well-versed in the dress protocol of an office.
"Guidance is a necessity," Henderson notes. "But it should be applied with balance, otherwise you run the risk of being considered a micromanagement employer."
Don’t wait until the last minute
Employers that wait to start looking at students until they are in their senior or junior year of college may have already missed the boat, Henderson explains. There are many innovative employers that begin establishing relationships with Gen Yers years before they even set foot on a college campus, and thus have the upper hand when it comes to attracting them.
Employers can avoid having to play catch-up by being proactive and targeting students early on. High schools and organizations such as the Girl Scouts are good starting points, Henderson says.
Companies can provide training or volunteer services within those institutions. They can also send a speaker or supply print materials, such as pamphlets, that provide tips on professionalism, dress code, business ethics, etc. "This measure doesn’t cost much, but you can get a lot in return," she says. "You’ll be at the forefront of their mind when they look for their first internship or job."