Constructing a Campus Recruiting Network

As the economy improves and hiring increases, recruiters may need to cast their nets wider to locate the very best college graduates this year.

College recruiters face the same core challenge that confronts all recruiting professionals: to find the best candidates and communicate a compelling employer value proposition that convinces those candidates to join your team.

The college recruiting window of opportunity is short, however, and the field is wide. From a pool of more than 1.3 million expected graduates who will be job hunting in 2004, college recruiters must attract, screen, interview, select and make job offers—and they must do all this within the campus recruiting season, which runs from September through November and from February through April.

To meet immediate hiring needs, technology can help the screening process by streamlining applications and allowing students to learn about your company and apply for jobs at any time. But finding the best student candidates in the long term requires reaching beyond technology to build deep relationships with campus communities and students in nontraditional ways.

Each campus operates as a classic “small world.” That world includes lots of students, faculty, alumni and career center officers, mixed in with a few highly versatile students and school organizations that have links to an even broader range of qualified candidates. By taking a networking approach, you can forge new connections and strengthen relationships with these various constituents to find the best student candidates for your organization.

Start Now To Reach a Generation

Most college recruiting efforts focus on executing short-term hiring goals by filling specific entry-level positions with graduates from selected schools. Positioned differently, however, your college recruiting program can serve as a marketing vehicle to an entire generation. By establishing a presence with people early in their careers, you can create a good impression that will last for years.

Today’s college graduates will be an increasingly important employee segment as baby boomers retire. In coming years, the number of retirees is expected to exceed the number of new college graduates entering the workforce. Recruiters need to start now to build campus networks with a generation of potential employees and customers as part of a long-term brand-building strategy.

Heidi McCormick, acting director of Case Western Reserve University’s career center, says, “Companies now are starting to realize that, with people changing jobs six to eight times in their lifetimes, it is more cost-effective to get in front of them when they are students than when they are 25 or 35 and dispersed out in the workforce.” The connections you make with students while they are in school, she says, have the potential to leave lasting impressions of your organization as a good place to work.

McCormick cites IBM as an example of a company having this kind of long-term, generational recruiting plan. In addition to its short-term hiring activities—participation in career fairs and interviewing sessions—IBM also sponsors campus workshops on leadership development. Open to all students, the sessions are educational and valuable for the students’ professional development. They also help to position IBM as an employer that values leadership at all levels. By extending participation beyond business and engineering students to include liberal arts majors and nonseniors, IBM plants seeds with an entire generation of students about its value as a prospective employer.

Your Network Hub:

The Campus Career Center

Building your campus network begins at the career center. As the hub of your network, it provides a jumping-off point to the rest of the campus community. Rather than handing over your job opportunities, “handshake” them over—have two-way conversations with career center staff about how to tailor your involvement on campus in a personal way. Keep communication open and ongoing as you participate in and engage with the community.

Every campus has its own culture. Career center staff can help you understand how students spend their time, how and where they share information, and what subcommunities within the school might be most appropriate for your recruiting efforts.

Ask the following questions of career center staff to help you start building a college recruiting strategy targeted to each specific campus:

  • What are students looking to learn about working in our industry?
  • Where will our message gain the most visibility with all students?
  • Where will our message get the most traction with the specific types of students we want to hire?
  • How do students find out about events on campus?
  • How do students get information about employers?
  • Who are the influential students and faculty who might help connect me with appropriate student candidates?

When tailoring any communications to students, it is important to speak their language. Students think in terms of majors and extracurricular activities rather than of specific skills such as analytical thinking and oral or written communication. The career center can help translate what you are looking for in an employee into the language students use to describe themselves.

DePaul University, for example, holds workshops at the outset of the recruiting season to educate students about the on-campus recruiting process. Christine Lynch, associate director for employer relations, invites guest speakers from companies recruiting on campus to share what employers look for in college hires. She says this provides companies with an early opportunity to gain visibility and prepare students for employers’ expectations.

Student Clubs Offer Targeted Opportunities

Every campus has student organizations related to professions and interests. Offer to speak at their meetings or to serve as mentors to the students. Participation can be face-to-face on campus or virtual through online webinars. DePaul’s career center helps the student-run Financial Management Association chapter bring speakers to its meetings from companies that recruit on campus. Your participation in such events should focus on trends in your industry rather than only on your own organization, and the events should be open to all students to provide the broadest reach for your networking efforts.

DePaul also hosts an annual breakfast for college recruiters at which student leaders staff booths that introduce recruiters to active campus organizations.

Engage Alumni

Recent graduates who work at your firm can provide one of the best sources for building campus networks and finding new student candidates. Start engaging alumni by identifying the schools from which your best hires have graduated. Find out what programs and resources these graduates used during their job searches. They are likely to know who are the influential people on campus and can make referrals to boost your recruiting network.

Alumni also are effective counselors to graduating students. Involve recent alumni in informational interviews that share their perspective on the organization and the transition to a professional working environment. More experienced alumni can expand the recruiting network by conducting “mock” employment interviews to help students practice their interviewing skills.

Leverage Internships

Unlike hiring experienced workers, college recruiting is about recruiting raw material—a blank slate. With unproven candidates, it can be more difficult to assess who has the characteristics you seek. Internships and cooperative (co-op) education programs provide excellent ways to screen potential candidates and maintain a presence on campus.

Case Western has a well-established co-op program that helps companies continue their presence building on campus, even during economic downtimes. More important, says Case Western’s McCormick, co-op and internship programs generate a lot of buzz among students. “The students talk about how great their experiences were for their next three semesters on campus. That peer publicity—you can’t buy it.”

Tap Faculty When Appropriate

The career center can also connect you with faculty who work in areas of interest to your organization. Case Western, for example, holds an annual research showcase at which graduate students and faculty share more than 600 research projects currently under way at the university. “It’s a place where other researchers go for the latest and greatest technology and findings. Employers should also be involved in the event to make connections with faculty for their own R&D departments,” says McCormick.

However, Bob Greenberg, director of career services for the University of Tennessee, cautions that working with faculty requires establishing relationships with a limited number of target schools. “Faculty are not there to tell recruiters who are their best students, and that’s often what recruiters think,” he says. By limiting the number of schools at which you recruit, “you can really get to know the career center staff and the faculty and have a presence on those campuses,” Greenberg adds.

College Recruiting as a Competitive Advantage?

College recruiting does not typically jump to mind as a driver of organizations’ competitive advantage. But the reality is that some companies are already building these networks on campus, focusing on both short-term and long-term recruiting and brand-building strategies. Such companies will not only be successful in filling their immediate hiring needs—which will become more acute as the economy accelerates—they will lay the foundation for the effective hiring of experienced candidates in the future by fostering long-term relationships with career centers, faculty and alumni.

If you are not building your campus network, it’s time to get started. Your competition is likely already there.

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