College Recruiting Goes For Niches

January 30, 2004

The Shell Group of Companies needs a constant influx of new talent, especially in areas like engineering and geosciences, where the best and the brightest graduating college students are highly sought after. Three years ago, in its search for candidates who wanted to work in the energy industry, Shell maintained an on-campus presence at about 84 colleges and universities. Today, Shell primarily targets just 26 schools.

    The obvious assumption is that this cutback was financially driven. Back in the 1999-2000 recruiting season, employers were spending about $6,207 per hire for each college student, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

    CareerXroads’ Gerry Crispin, analyzing data from, figures the average cost per college hire is probably now closer to $4,100. With about 500,000 college students getting jobs annually via the courting efforts of corporations, it’s still more than a $2 billion effort.

    Shell, like many other large companies, is concentrating its college recruitment efforts on the schools that provide the best ROI. In turn, Shell is expanding its programs at those target schools, trying to develop closer ties in order to identify the most talented students as early as their sophomore year. Shell has found that if it waits until students are juniors or seniors, it might already be too late. Competitors may have already wooed them and in some cases extended an offer of employment upon graduation.

    Shell is not alone. Rather than try to visit 20 campuses and recruit one student from each, most firms have realized that they get a better payoff--and land better talent--by going to four campuses and hiring five students from each, says Steven Rothberg, president and founder of Minneapolis-based The bypassed schools are now reached largely by technological means, such as online résumé searching, job postings and direct e-mail campaigns.

    The goal isn’t necessarily to save money; it’s to spend it better. "My experience has been that successful employers spend more, not less, money overall once they discover which schools work well for them," Rothberg says. "The money you spend visiting the schools is insignificant compared to the money saved and generated by a more productive workforce. Successful employers tend to look to long-term measurements rather than short-term savings."

    For Shell, the streamlined approach seems to be working. Jerry Wilson, campus recruiting and university relations manager, won’t reveal specific numbers, but he says that since Shell moved to a targeted campus effort, recruiting costs have dropped, the time-to-hire cycle has shortened and the acceptance rate has jumped. The biggest indication of the improved ROI may be that 80 percent of Shell’s 400 to 500 new hires each year now come from those 26 target schools.

The $750 awards
   In the past, Wilson says, the attempt to maintain an on-campus presence at more than 80 schools spread the firm’s resources too thin, with too few recruiters trying to create a presence at too many schools. Now, Shell uses a dedicated team approach for the target schools. Each team is headed by a senior Shell executive, called a "campus ambassador," and another executive dubbed a "campus manager," who meets with the school’s various department heads and manages the overall strategy for his or her assigned campus. The teams are composed of 7 to 10 experienced Shell employees, each of whom commits to spending 15 to 20 days a year on campus. They meet with key campus contacts, make presentations in classrooms and before student groups, and conduct interviews.

    The team members also have more time to develop relationships with the school, enabling them to decide, for example, which programs to sponsor for the greatest impact on their recruiting efforts. Last year, Shell invited 17 members of the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists (MAES) from Texas A&M University to spend a day at its Houston headquarters, where they heard presentations on Shell’s emerging technologies, the company’s support for sustainable development and the Shell Hispanic Employee Network. It wasn’t a recruiting event per se, but a way to strengthen the relationship with the campus and introduce students--even freshmen--to the company.

    Shell, like most companies, offers internships to promising students. This year, it is also offering several "pre-employment programs" to help differentiate the company. One program is a Personal Development Award, which gives $750 to help students pursue some venture of importance to their personal or educational development. From Shell's perspective, a key benefit of this program is early identification of top students. Unlike internships, which are geared primarily to juniors and seniors, the Personal Development Award is open to sophomores and seniors en route to graduate studies. The program will give the students an earlier introduction to Shell, and alerts the company to promising students at the beginning of their college careers.

Objective measures
    In the go-go ’90s, employers visited many campuses not because the business was going to be able to recruit quality candidates from those schools, but because a senior manager had graduated from there, says Rothberg of "If no candidates are hired year after year from that school, it becomes increasingly difficult for the senior manager to justify that expenditure," he says.

    In evaluating which 26 schools to focus on, Shell used a number of factors, including the quality of the academic program, the number of students enrolled and the diversity of the student population.

    Kevin Gray, an editor at the National Association of Colleges and Employers, says that while many employers are refocusing their efforts, not enough are using exacting standards to select target schools.

    The best companies re-evaluate their target schools on an ongoing basis, using objective factors. The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore recruits at 78 target schools. Every year, Johns Hopkins evaluates the schools and ranks them in three tiers to determine where to put resources. The key to this approach, Gray says, is selecting recruitment criteria that are important to the organization. Johns Hopkins, like many companies, tries to determine specifically whether students are a good cultural fit.

    Gray says that even when a company drops its level of commitment to a school, it’s important to maintain some kind of tie; otherwise, it can be difficult to re-establish a connection if recruiting needs increase. Some companies cut back their on-campus presence while increasing their technology links to the schools. WetFeet, based in San Francisco, publishes online directories of more than 50 professions, which students pay to access. Some firms sponsor these directories, putting their logos on them and providing them free of charge to students through the college intranets.

Internet saving time
    More companies are using Webinars and other online tools as a way to reach narrow groups of students, says Steve Pollock, president of WetFeet. For example, Shell has run such an online session for students in the petroleum and geological sciences. Julie Hur Pascoe, Shell campus attractions and branding manager, says that with tech-savvy geosciences students, it was important for Shell to demonstrate that it uses the most technologically sophisticated recruiting tools.

    Webinars can run in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $40,000, depending on the amount of marketing involved and the number of users in separate locations. Whether this costs less or more than sending recruiters on traveling missions is only half of the ROI calculation. A Webinar can save hundreds of hours of recruiting time, quickly reaching multiple people on multiple campuses. A Shell executive wouldn’t have time to fly around the country and meet with many groups of 5 to 10 students. Merrill Lynch used a Webinar to enable its chief technology officer to chat online with students. "The firm has bankers out on campus in force," Pollock says. "But this was a more selective group that is harder to reach."

    The narrow focus of such presentations is appealing to students. Hundreds came to the Merrill Lynch event, but the impact was even bigger. The chat session gave the company a sense of the key issues for students, and the transcripts from such events are posted on the Merrill Lynch Web site for a year afterward.

    Many firms have no contact with students outside career fairs. Accenture, a global consulting firm based in New York, tries to keep in touch with top prospects year-round. The firm sends customized eCards to prospective recruits, providing specific information relevant to them, explains Bill Ziegler, the firm’s global recruiting director. Accenture recruiters go online into greeting-card galleries like Blue Mountain and select different cards, which are customized for students.

    This also allows Accenture to take advantage of its strong relationships with collegiate diversity groups, such as the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, National Society of Black Engineers and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. The leadership of these groups often forward Accenture's eCards to their entire membership. That’s an efficient--and cost-effective--way for Accenture to keep itself in front of selected groups of key students.