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Companies scramble to recruit college students amid a booming job market

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

November 9, 2021

Cleveland — Kristin Williams, executive director of career exploration and development at Kent State University, noticed an immediate shift in recruitment activity when she and her team returned to campus full time this fall.

“Everyone was knocking on our door for every kind of position,” she said.

That includes part-time roles, internships and full-time gigs. The bustle isn’t just at Kent, either. Employers are reaching out in droves to Northeast Ohio’s colleges and universities to tap into talent amid the booming job market. Williams said she hasn’t seen anything like this over her 15 years in the industry.

Baldwin Wallace University, for example, receives about 250 new job and internship postings on its online platform every day. Recruiting activity is up about 10 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels. Officials at Lakeland Community College said its job board is “inundated,” too, adding there’s an especially high demand for those in fields like nursing, respiratory therapy, and CNC programming.

The big idea: That’s in line with reports from other colleges small and large across the country, such as Colby College, Fordham University, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, according to reporting in The New York Times. The demand for college hires is a major reversal from earlier in the pandemic when internships were cancelled in droves and job offers to new graduates fell.

In many ways, the ball now rests in the students’ court, leaving companies to figure out how to differentiate themselves to stay competitive and recruit the talent they need. And, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, many students are looking for both authenticity and flexibility from companies.

“Students want to have those connections,” Williams said. “They want to understand the culture of the company, if you have flexibility — they want to know what the perks are. So it’s important to put your best foot out there and talk to candidates about what that ‘best and final’ (offer) might look like, because things are moving so rapidly.”

Shift from the ‘old ways’

Campus career fairs, many of which moved online amid the pandemic, have long been one of the most common currencies when it comes to connecting students and potential employers. That’s changing, though.

“Because Gen Z is native to digital interactions, the shift from the old ways of recruiting (e.g., in-person interviews, career fairs, campus and employer networking events) is not something today’s job seekers dwell on,” reads a recent trend report from Handshake, a popular digital recruiting platform.

Most young people want to meet representatives more than once and in different ways. Kent State recently held a “networking for good” event where employers worked on a service project with students. Sending company reps to campus for lunch or as class speakers are other ways companies are looking to make inroads.

Fall traditionally is a busy time for recruiting as businesses look to secure talent to start post-graduation in the spring. That timeline can be tough, said Julie Gutheil, an associate director at Case Western Reserve University’s post-graduate planning and experiential education office. Some CWRU students, especially those in engineering, already report receiving multiple offers.

Gutheil is noticing an uptick in students booking appointments to talk about offer negotiations. She said the biggest challenge they face is when those come early.

“For some of them, it’s, ‘I kind of want to see what’s still out there, and I’m still applying for different opportunities, but I have to potentially give an answer,’ “ she said.

She advises companies to give students until November or December to make a decision. But the school can’t mandate that. It’s typical for Case students to be in this situation when employers want students to turn an internship into a full-time role.

Gutheil helps students reflect on their experience: Does the time you spent there over the summer align with your long-term goals? Were there things you didn’t enjoy? What are you looking for in an organization?

“Over time, your brand as an organization is going to impact your value proposition for new team members,” said Jim Livingston, chief people officer of Rock Central, a business that supports the growth within the Detroit-based Rock Family of Companies, including Rocket Mortgage.

The pandemic reinforced the importance of offering empathy and listening to those they recruit, Livingston said. The company scouts for its family of companies at several universities in the area, including Cleveland State University and the University of Akron.

Outreach ranges from partnering with student organizations to offer professional development sessions to sponsoring sales competitions to find new talent. About 20 percent of the company’s events this semester remain virtual.

Companies work to widen the pipeline

Online events allow recruiters to reach far wider talent pools. Women, people of color and neurodiverse students said they found online events and interviews to be “less anxiety-inducing, easier to balance, and more accessible,” per additional findings from Handshake—and nearly 90 percent of student respondents said they want some level of virtual recruiting to continue in the future. Recent student surveys by NACE echo that.

All of insurance giant Progressive Corp.’s collegiate recruiting efforts are online this semester. Gabe De León, a recruiting manager overseeing collegiate and MBA programs, noted engagement for available full-time positions has dipped slightly. He gets it.

“I know students are tired of getting emails or another Zoom meeting or Teams meeting (invitation),” he said.

They’re working to make more consumable messaging. Job descriptions are getting drilled down. Videos are embedded into some postings.

“It is difficult to show them what’s inside at Progressive when we’re obviously still working from home, so it’s kind of bringing the Progressive culture to them,” he said.

The company added more PTO days to its benefits package and upped incentives like virtual fitness class offerings. Students are interested in more than just their salaries, according to college career services professionals. Educational benefits, like student loan repayment, are appealing, as are flexible work options. Paid parking, wellness incentives and child care assistance are big, too.

KeyBank officials tailored specific virtual events for students this year. These highlighted the company’s benefit offerings, its culture and team members who have grown within the organization, said Megan Lallo, Key’s campus and diversity recruiting manager.

“The feedback that we got from candidates is they felt way more connected to Key as a result of those events,” she said. “And then ultimately what we did was create a pool of talent that just generally better fits for our organization.”

This year, the company moved up its college recruiting cycle by three months in order to stay competitive. Jobs for 2022 got posted in May 2021. Interviews started in June.

Parting thought: Officials came to this decision, Lallo said, by doubling down on market research. That insight is a huge part of how the company crafts its collegiate recruitment efforts.

“Removing COVID from the game altogether, the campus recruiting industry is not one that you can copy and paste year over year,” she said. “We’re always needing to evolve our strategy and grow and change the way that we show up in the market and differentiate ourselves in different ways.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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