5 biggest student recruitment trends of 2021

Nov 11, 2021 | Sector & policy, You might have missed

ISE’s annual student recruitment report launches this week. Researchers Tristram Hooley and Holly Hussein give their take on the key recruitment  trends that you should know.

After the turbulence of the last couple of years many people will be hoping for the student labour market to be ‘back to normal’.

In some ways this year’s ISE Student Recruitment survey offers a lot of hope that normal is just around the corner, but inevitably there is quite a lot of stuff that remains ‘unprecedented’.

For those of you who are new to ISE, the survey that we are reporting on is an annual survey of employers’ practice in relation to the recruitment of school leavers and graduates. If you go on our website you’ll be able to see previous surveys going back to 2003. This means that we’ve got a pretty good idea what normal looks like and where this year is looking weird.

Here are the five biggest student recruitment trends of 2021 that you need to know about:


Trend one – Competition for graduate jobs reached a record high

While in general employers are finding the students that they need, the market remains very competitive for young people.

The average employer is receiving 91 applications for every graduate role they are advertising. This is the highest number of applications-per-hire since ISE began collecting this data in 1999.

The situation isn’t so competitive for school leavers (67 applications-per-hire), interns (83) or work placements (82), but across the board the volume of applications seems high.

The support that university careers services provide is essential right now in helping students to successfully navigate the application process. Targeting and tailoring with the right application to the right employer is the name of the game right now. The ‘spray and pray’ approach increases the volume of applications without increasing their quality and is unlikely to lead to much success.


Trend two – The market is bouncing back

After the challenges of the pandemic, the 2020/2021 recruitment season has seen a substantial bounce-back across all types of hires. Employers are currently predicting that this growth will continue into the 2021-2022 season.

Recruitment growth and forecasts for next year (% change from pre-pandemic year of 2018/2019)

We did not observe a drop in school and college leaver hiring during the pandemic and this part of the market is continuing to grow. But for graduates, interns and placement students there was a substantial drop in 2019/2020 and, although things are improving, we estimate that the overall levels of recruitment aren’t back to pre-pandemic levels yet.

Many employers are still scaling up their recruitment and so we expect that by the end of 2021/2022, graduates and intern hiring will exceed pre-pandemic levels. However, recovery of work placement student hiring is likely to continue to lag behind.


Trend three – Recruitment has gone virtual (possibly for good)

Almost all respondents (93%) reported that they have shifted their recruitment processes online. This was true of both attraction and selection activities with 94% of both taking place online.

After the last two years and given the ongoing uncertainty around Covid (see our Covid bulletins), this isn’t surprising. Indeed our poll last month of educators suggested a similar pattern there.

But, there is also some evidence that what began as a short term way to deal with the pandemic is starting to harden into business as usual. Almost half of employers (48%) anticipated that in five years’ time their recruitment processes will still be mainly virtual.


Trend four – Homeworking is becoming more normal in early careers

There has been some speculation that the success of the mass-homeworking experiment caused by Covid-19 would lead some organisations to move to homeworking more permanently.

There is some evidence that this may be happening in a minority of organisations with 13% saying that they do not require student hires to live where they work and almost a quarter (24%) saying that they are now recruiting student hires who will be mainly based from home. This is an increase from last year when 20% envisioned a growth in homeworking for early career staff.

Some sectoral differences in attitudes towards homeworking can be seen, with the digital and IT sector reporting the largest proportion of students (52%) being recruited on the basis that they will work predominately from home, potentially due to roles in this sector being easier to carry out remotely.

This trend is even more marked with respect to interns and placements students with most employers reporting that they expect to be delivering internships (69%) and work placements (76%) either online or in a hybrid form.

Whether this is a long-term trend still remains to be seen, but 20% of employers report that they will be basing an increasing number of early-career staff at home over the next five years.


Trend five – Diversity matters (but there is more to do)

A month ago we launched our Black Careers Matter report which highlighted the work that student employers still have to do on race and ethnicity. This year’s recruitment survey shows that, as well as race, many employers are also focused on other diversity strands, notably socio-economic background, disability and gender.

Most (65%) of employers have formal targets around diversity, and have been actively developing their recruitment processes to make them more inclusive. But almost all (99%) felt that they had more to do on diversity over the next five years.

Read ISE’s Student Recruitment Survey 2021

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