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Graduate recruitment

Pioneering Study: Graduate Recruitment Bright, But Still Much for Employers to Learn

Jon Arnold

trees-sun.jpgThe UK graduate recruitment landscape, though competitive, presents ample opportunity for companies to net top talent – but providing a seamless candidate experience is key.

Graduate recruitment is heating up. The country is now five years removed from the 2008-13 recession, when graduate vacancies dropped by a full 25%, and optimism about the job market, particularly among recent graduates, appears to be soaring.

New research happily confirms that these sentiments are well-founded. Recently, High Fliers Research conducted face-to-face interviews with more than 18,000 final year university students – representing over one-fifth of total 2016 graduates in the UK – to assess their opinions of the graduate recruitment market. The report, UK Graduate Careers Survey 2016, is one of the largest of its kind, and paints a particularly bright future for graduate recruitment. At the same time, it highlights significant shortcomings of graduate recruiters, identifying clear areas where employers stand to gain a competitive advantage.

It is our view that, while the graduate recruitment landscape is highly competitive, employers have ample opportunity to capitalise on nascent trends.

Graduates Are Optimistic About Their Prospects

Graduates have more employment opportunities now than ever. The survey found that 2016 will likely see graduate vacancies rise by 7%, constituting the fourth consecutive year of rising vacancy rates and bringing graduate recruitment to an historic high.

In fact, 28% of recruits polled believe that they will find immediate post-graduate employment, the highest percentage in fifteen years. Overall, 44% of graduates expect to find employment in 2016, a 2% bump from the year prior. And while many students choose to pursue other interests after graduation (like post-graduate education or travel), 77% will be actively searching for employment by their final year of university.

Overall, the consensus is quite sunny. For example, while just one sixth of students believe that there are “plenty of jobs” for graduates, that statistic represents the most optimistic outlook among graduates since the recession.

For employers, who have until recently viewed graduate recruitment with weariness, this optimism on the part of student job-seekers presents a welcome change. While the rebounding economy comes with admitted growing pains, companies that can take these obstacles in stride will be rewarded with a significant competitive edge.

Recruitment Is Competitive, and Starts Early

Over the last five years, employers have felt mounting pressure to hire graduates from ever-growing and increasingly competitive talent pools. While today, the situation is becoming less dire, the fact remains that hiring top talent isn’t easy. In fact, three fifths of students feel that, “there are some jobs, but not enough for everyone,” indicating that recruiters aggressively lobby for a small subset of the most talented graduates.

As a result of this competition, the recruitment process is starting earlier and earlier in students’ careers. 63% of 2016 graduates had sent out at least one application by February – 16% more than had done so a decade prior – and one-third had already received a job offer. In fact, the peak month for job applications is October, followed by the “milkround” months leading up to February. This shouldn’t be surprising, as 75% of students begin their employment searches before their senior years begin.

Interestingly, despite this degree of preparation, candidates generally haven’t set their sights on finding employment in a particular field. In fact, they’re rarely beholden to any employer or sector.

Employers Have Significant Room to Persuade

High Fliers found that a surprising three-quarters of students changed their post-graduate employment focus during the course of their job search; four-fifths agreed to the statement, “I’m not really sure about what I want to do after university.” In other words, employers have ample opportunity to persuade candidates to apply to their graduate vacancies, regardless of their current career trajectory.

For example, while over half of students had experience in a specific industry prior to graduating, a third had been deterred from pursuing a career by either their employer or the entire industry sector. And despite the fact that a quarter had been offered jobs after their work period, fewer than two-thirds of graduates accepted these positions.

Of course, that’s not to say that recruits treat each industry equally. In 2016, consulting is projected to be the most sought-after sector, followed by marketing and media.

Graduates Want to Avoid Stress and Long Applications

Despite a split in the polls on their desired industry of employment, graduates are unified on the one thing that they absolutely don’t want in the application process: stress.

It appears that stress levels – and consequently the difficulty of applying to an organisation – significantly affect where graduates ultimately decide to work. Four-fifths of students reported that keeping up with university work while searching for jobs was elevating their stress levels. With precious little spare time, they are often deterred by onerous or lengthy applications, or by employers who are slow to respond.

Indeed, while the average time for candidates to complete an application was three hours, half of those surveyed indicated that they leave the lengthiest applications for last or don’t complete them at all. Similarly, if it was apparent that a company’s hiring process would take longer than the expected average of nine weeks, a third of candidates would prioritize applications to other companies.

When students do complete a job application, they expect a fast turnaround. On average, they expect to hear back from employers within two week of applying, and within seven days following a final interview. These are all targets that, as High Fliers notes, “most recruiters struggle to meet.”

To Make Up Ground, the Candidate Experience Is Key

Put simply, companies need to craft a seamless experience for potential candidates in order to woo promising (and often impatient) graduates. Of course, assessing recruits quickly and accurately is a desirable goal. But according to the survey, there are other areas that, if improved, are likely to bear fruit.

For one, online engagement is critical. 82% of graduates look at employer websites, and more than a quarter use Facebook or LinkedIn to search for jobs. Three-fifths of respondents indicated that it’s “very important” for employers to post information that gives clear guidance on the application and hiring process. A majority also felt that sample interview questions, job-matching tools, or a ‘self-selection section’ – such as a questionnaire that indicates whether applying at all would be worth a candidate’s time – should be included.

But even in today’s digital market, physical engagement remains important. The study reports that a record 59% of graduates attend on-campus employer presentations, and over half go to career fairs. This is certainly an area that companies need to capitalise on, and some organisations are even integrating technology into their assessment days to boost attendance from better-qualified students.

What’s increasingly clear is that, in general, graduates feel little need to adhere to a strict post-graduation plan. Instead, they’re inclined to work for companies that offer exciting opportunities, often regardless of industry.

Conclusion: Students Want to See Themselves in Your Company

Landing at a company with an enjoyable work environment is an important consideration for graduates today. Indeed, they cite their highest priorities as: “being challenged and stretched on a day-to-day basis,” and “having a good social life around work.”

This means that, to lure best-fit graduates, companies need to effectively broadcast their organisation’s values and culture. And while recruiters can achieve that goal in myriad ways, a common denominator will likely be the integration of technology, which enables organisations to more effectively reach a wider pool of recruits.

On the whole, it’s refreshing that graduate recruitment appears to finally have ‘turned the corner,’ and organisations will have significantly more opportunity than in years past to hire the best young recruits. Of course, a blossoming market brings its own challenges. But by adapting to the changing preferences of students, recruiters can craft a candidate experience and engagement strategy that makes their organisations the obvious next step for promising graduates.

Jon Arnold

Jon Arnold is an account director at LaunchPad Recruits