The job market for new college graduates hit a peak in 2001 and then declined with the recession. Since then, the market has steadily improved and more companies are back actively recruiting on college campuses. All indications are that spring 2006 will be the most competitive environment since prior to the recession.
Back on campus
"When we asked our members to rate the projected job market for new college graduates this year, nearly 94 percent of the respondents said that they expected it to be good, very good or excellent, and that’s up from 80 percent last year," said Andrea Koncz, employment information manager with the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based professional organization that connects college career centers and employers.
NACE estimates that 54 percent of its member companies will be on campus this spring, an increase from the 42 percent that were on campus a year earlier. Not only will more companies attend, their recruiters and managers are looking for 14 percent more new hires than in 2005.
Mary Scott, founder and president of Scott Resource Group, a college recruitment consulting firm based in West Hartford, Connecticut, conducts nationwide surveys of college students each year following the recruitment season. Scott’s surveys of the 2005 campus recruiting season showed a slight increase in the number of interviews each student was receiving--5.7 in 2005, up from 5.5 in 2004. More significant, those students went from receiving an average of a single offer in 2004 to 1.5 offers in 2005.
With more offers in their hands, many students are having the option of choosing where they will go to work. With more companies looking for more new hires, Scott thinks this year might double the interview-to-offer ratio. "I wouldn’t be surprised to see that offer number climb to three (offers) or beyond this year," Scott says.
Campuses that attract a mix of national, regional and local employers are also seeing a big increase.
"We have gone from 150 companies on campus two years ago to 250 this year and we had to cap it off," says Karen Kerr, associate director of the career center at California State University, Fullerton. "There’s a resurgence of state and local governments as well as local and regional firms that are here on campus this year."
Tailoring the recruiting process
With so much competition, Scott says that some of her clients have been missing their targeted recruitment numbers. She says that knowing what the students are looking for and delivering it are the keys to success.
The survey data that Scott gathers look at two primary areas when measuring the effectiveness of campus recruiting. The first is what the students say is important to them in their new jobs, and the second is how they feel about the recruitment process. Scott says that the two sets of data are very similar.
"It is all about how they are treated in the campus recruiting process and the feeling that they get from the people they interact with," Scott says.
Students gravitate toward companies that convey the feeling that their work will matter, and they are looking for companies that make them feel valued, she says.
"They make that judgment almost exclusively from the company representatives they interact with," Scott says.
Job content, fit with the company culture and salary are the top three things that are important to students from an employer perspective, according to the surveys. Scott says that students gather that knowledge and reach their decisions from three sources--the company representatives they interact with, the on-campus information sessions and internships.
With so much emphasis on human interaction, companies that utilize technology as a substitute for capable staff on campus--which includes the use of video interviewing and directing students to apply online--often make a strategic mistake.
"These students are not impressed by technology. They grew up with it and it’s just expected that your company has great technology," says Mimi Collins, director of information with NACE.
Reputation and relationships
"Once you’ve made the commitment to be on campus you can’t just cut and run," Collins says. "If you don’t have jobs to offer that year then, offer to do something else, like résumé review, and be certain to maintain your internship and cooperative education programs."
Word-of-mouth and reputation among the students, faculty and career centers are strong elements in being a preferred employer year in and year out and successfully competing for the best and brightest.
Chicago-based Grant Thornton LLP, the fifth-largest accounting firm worldwide, has consistently recruited on college campuses regardless of the economy. Gary Wilson, assurance partner for Grant Thornton, says that the firm’s continued investment of 20 years of recruiting on college campuses has paid off during the recent times when accounting graduates were hot items on campus.
The market for accounting personnel has been extremely competitive as a result of Sarbanes-Oxley, according to Wilson. He says that many companies have almost doubled their accounting staffs since the act was passed.
With so much competition, Grant Thornton’s strategy combines early identification of prospects, multilayered relationships, integrity and accountability to win the offer war against the other major accounting firms.
The firm appoints a "campus champion" for each location who builds relationships with professors and other campus influencers so they will recommend the firm to students. Monique Owen, human resources manager with Grant Thornton, thinks the selection and training of the firm’s campus representatives makes a difference when it comes to human interaction. The champions come from the client services ranks within the firm, such as tax, audit or consulting, and they frequently volunteer for the additional role as a way to achieve career development and recognition.
"We see many people put their hands up at annual goal time when they say they want to be recruiters," Owen says. "We do a very thorough job of screening those people and making certain that they know everything that will be involved and that they will be a good fit for the assignment."
Owen also says that there is accountability that goes along with the responsibility. The firm expects an 85 percent conversion from offers to hires, and each recruiter’s performance is measured in a year-end evaluation.
Filling internships requires building a pipeline of talent. The firm runs a three-day leadership program each summer that gives management the opportunity to see students early in their education and begin targeting their selections.
"It also gives the students their first opportunity to meet our partners and see who we are as a company and what a career in public accounting is all about. We want to convey honesty every step of the way," Owen says.
"Honesty is absolutely critical," Cal State Fullerton’s Kerr says. "Any type of bait-and-switch that goes on once the students are hired, or if there’s a lot of turnover in the company, that will get back to campus and you will take a long time to recover."
Mimi Collins agrees. She says that right after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, ethics suddenly came to the top of the list in terms of student priorities.
"Some employers think that students are in a bubble, but they aren’t," she says. "One mistake can cost you a lot."
Consistent recruiting pays
General Electric, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, hires about 2,000 interns each year, and the expectation is to convert 800 to 1,000 of them to full-time status following their internships. The new hires subsequently enter a two-year rotational training program before being permanently assigned to a first position.
Steve Canale, manager of recruitment and staffing for the firm, credits much of GE’s recruiting success to the company’s continued on-campus presence regardless of the economy and to the firm’s annual $1 billion training budget.
"We can point to many executives in our company, such as the current head of our company as well as some of our CIOs and CFOs, who came through this program," Canale says. "So we can demonstrate that the program works and that we have career progression."
He says that GE also puts its campus representatives through extensive training to make certain they have the interpersonal skills for the job. This best practice was highly endorsed by both NACE and the campus experts.
"Having line managers on campus is a double-edged sword," Kerr says. "They are great at explaining job content because they understand the positions. And they have personally been through the career path, so they can demonstrate it.
"However, if they aren’t the right personality for the students, they can actually hurt the recruiting efforts. It’s important that they have the right soft skills and have been trained on what to say," she adds.
Canale says that despite GE’s history, he considers it to be a "buyer’s market" for students, and continued success in college recruiting won’t come by being complacent. "We can’t rest on the past in this environment," he says. "It’s not good enough to be the most admired. We really need to keep getting better."