Covid-19: the future of student recruitment and development

Jul 27, 2020 | Sector & policy

Coronavirus has transformed our industry, but what might it mean in the longer term for student recruitment and development?

Just as Covid-19 has impacted every country in the world, so has it impacted every aspect of our industry. Many student employers have had to learn to attract, recruit, onboard and develop their intakes wholly online.

In the early stages of the crisis, most employers were focused on managing their interns and recruiting if they still had vacancies to fill. Some employers could still onboard their placement students and slot them seamlessly into their teams. Others shortened summer internships incorporating online projects and learning sessions. Video interviews were common practice pre-Covid, but many employers have added Zoom-powered assessment centres to progress candidates to the offer stage.

With autumn only three months away, minds are focused on the next recruitment season. Employers won’t be criss-crossing the country with stands in tow. Virtual careers fairs, in-curriculum online projects and skills sessions as webinars, are all likely to feature strongly well into 2021.

But amongst the opportunities to innovate, many are concerned that groups of students could miss out. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have as much access to technology, broadband and private space as their better off peers. The aftermath of the financial crash showed that many students suffered long-term damage to their earnings and career trajectories.

The financial crash also permanently changed our industry, particularly the size and make up of employers’ marketing budgets. What will Covid-19’s lasting impact be? A virtual recruiting season will teach employers and careers teams’ lessons about what works well online and crucially, where they need to get back out and meet students in person. Cost savings, efficiency gains and the pressures of a recession will drive many decisions. But so will the need to attract the best talent.

We have asked four experts for their perspectives both on our current challenges and the post-Covid landscape.

Transforming attraction and marketing: Richard Badley, Head of Innovation, SMRS

Covid-19’s impact (on student attraction and marketing) was felt immediately. Not necessarily in the cancellation or pausing of in-market activity, more so because the homebound economy forced a major redesign of candidate experience and engagement strategies – across all aspects of attraction and marketing (and through into engagement and assessment).

The most impactful change was the necessary and immediate cancellation of any physical engagements. On-campus activities, events and assessment centres all abruptly stopped. This meant an immediate and intense focus on digitising the processes, end to end. Some organisations were already set up to do this or were quick to adapt, for others it caused major challenges.

Needless to say, the virus is having a profound adverse economic impact. And as time moves on, organisations have a clearer understanding of the direct implications on their early careers strategies and hiring demands. We are starting to identify what the future of student attraction and marketing might look like, and how it might change:

It will be more important for recruiters to capture a candidate’s attention

ISE reported a 23% contraction in student recruitment this year. Logic suggests this could lead to a reduction in attraction and marketing activity in the long-term. However, with the surge in digital consumption, competition for attention and less routes to reach candidates we actually have a more competitive marketplace. Recruiters will need to work harder to stand out and cut through to students.

What is the solution? Be creative. Be brave. Be relevant. We have to fight the fatigue of zoom calls, job ads and standard display messages with ‘click to apply’ calls to action. The wonderfully creative attraction we are already seeing will raise the bar in the long term.

Relevance and targeting will become critical

Volume has never been the problem in early careers engagement. As a consequence of Covid-19 we are seeing an increased focus on strategic planning, data analysis and micro targeting strategies. The ability to understand, identify, and engage with exactly who we need in our organisations will become more important than ever before. Financial pressures will focus our budgets to be as effective as possible. The Black Lives Matter movement is leading to a long overdue realignment of campaign composition and D&I strategies. Deeper analysis of recruiter’s data, market data and efficiency gains will shift people analytics to the next level.

Candidate experience will matter more than ever

Whether through choice or necessity, Covid-19 has forced recruiters to fully digitalise their marketing and attraction activity. We have had to reimagine many touch points in a candidate’s journey and now have the opportunity to completely re-evaluate, rethink and redesign the full candidate experience. Digitalisation allows for more scalable, accessible (great for social mobility) and measurable engagements. We can reduce costs, ensure we are ‘always on’ and operate in a more agile manner. If we embrace the opportunity, we can transform the candidate experience.

But we need to remind ourselves that this is a pandemic, not a campaign brief. Candidates need reassurance, access to our organisations and a personal relationship. Digitalisation makes candidates feel organisations are innovative but can also lead to a feeling of detachment. Whatever we do, we need to ensure we continue to appeal, attract and engage with our audiences. Now more than ever.

Keep focused on social mobility

Tom Freeman, Managing Director, Sanctuary Graduates

Heading into what could be the largest recession on record, there has been and will continue to be a large reduction in hiring in the businesses and industries hit the hardest. Fewer roles means increased competition and we’re concerned about the impact this could have on less privileged candidates who face an increased likelihood of unemployment after education.

But not all employers have stopped recruiting. A seemingly seamless move to digital assessments and virtual internships by some firms has allowed them to continue hiring almost as normal. But there is concern about the impact this could have on social mobility. It’s more difficult for candidates to put themselves forward and build relationships in a virtual environment. This concern is shared by our partners, the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF). Employers are finding new ways to monitor which candidates will be offered graduate roles so we’ll have to keep a close eye on how hiring decisions are affected.

Covid-19 could have a long-term impact on disadvantaged students. The SMF recently published research that shows that 40% of children from low income households don’t have a quiet room in which they can study. Many better off families either have access to better schooling or pay for private tutors, which will widen further the learning gap between rich and poor. In the future, the knock-on effect could be that employers choose to recruit only from a narrow pool of top universities that maintain higher entry requirements and will attract fewer diverse candidates

On a more positive note, our recent conversations with dozens of employers who are planning virtual campus campaigns this autumn suggest that they see this as an opportunity to engage with a wider range of students at more diverse institutions. This could soften the blow for students from low socio-economic backgrounds who are heading into a beleaguered job market.

Delivering virtual selection and assessment

Dan Doherty, Attraction and Recruitment Manager, Capgemini UK 

Normally, the final stage of our selection process is an on-site assessment centre, so Covid-19 scuppered our plans mid-campaign. To avoid cancelling or postponing the delivery of recruitment services to our business we had to find a virtual solution hosted online – at speed and ideally without incurring additional costs. By mid-March, pre-lockdown, we were avidly investigating alternatives.

In March, we chose to transition to Microsoft Teams which gave us only five days to design a series of user guides, deliver briefing calls and conduct functionality testing. We aimed to keep the assessment of candidates and the exercises they completed the same. The key for us was to make sure hiring rates weren’t impacted, the candidate experience remained high and technology enabled not hindered.

Pre-lockdown, we had already run 23 Assessment Centres (ACs) for 2020 recruitment. Since the end of March we have successfully run 22 Virtual Assessment Centres (VACs).

When it comes to the pre-assessment centre stages in the selection process, nothing has or will change going forward in light of Covid-19. However, for candidates who reach our final stage assessment centres, they may find the online experience is here to stay.

Benefits that we’ve identified by running VACs:

  • Cost savings – Reduced expenditure on candidate and facilitator travel
  • Time savings – Decrease in assessor time away from client work
  • Flexibility – Removes restricted room/site availability which can cause limited availability and delay ACs being run if on-site
  • Employee emissions – Removing office energy and business travel
  • Efficiency – Increased candidate attendance rates at AC from 92% to 98%

Employers need to make sure any online solution removes or reduces a range of risks:

  • Body language – Less able to see candidates compared to face-to-face recruitment
  • Social cues – Less visible, similar to any conference call
  • Non-assessed interactions – Less informal exchanges at coffee machines or waiting between exercises
  • Company environment – Less able to show physical spaces to candidates
  • Consistency – Employers may need to justify part-use if they don’t fully adopt VAC

Most employers will now be thinking about the 2.0 version of their VAC solution. What we do know is that early careers candidates are more receptive to virtual attraction activities and are more accustomed to video interviews. So, if VACs are here to stay, it’ll mean employers will need to make sure their digital communications and hosting platforms are up to scratch to give candidates the best possible end-to-end experience.

Adapting apprenticeships

Karen Handley, Global Head of Future Careers, Virgin Media & Liberty Global

The need to recruit and develop emerging talent to ensure our organisations have the right skills and capabilities hasn’t changed. But the way we recruit and develop them has had to. McKinsey research highlights that organisations have had to condense five-year consumer and business digital adoption plans into eight weeks with an increased focus on digital, technology, and analytical skills. Arguably, this showcases that there has never been a greater business case to invest in emerging talent as a key pipeline to grow and upskill new talent through graduate and apprentice programmes.

Covid-19 has changed the student industry. In the short term, student recruitment has dropped by nearly a quarter and up to 40% of organisations are unsure of their 2021 plans. Other employers are recruiting to plan. Virgin Media has continued to recruit and develop to 100% of our target numbers, but we’ve had to act fast. We’ve had to rethink the technology we use, ensure continued robustness in assessment, and importantly, deliver a strong candidate experience. And we’ve had great feedback from entry-level talent and our business stakeholders.

Covid-19 has caused us to question our reliance on physical events, both when attracting candidates and how training providers deliver ‘20% off the job learning’ to apprentices. Virtual solutions are more accessible, timely and cost effective. Covid-19 has challenged our thinking: why would we want or need to go back to the old model in a more focused digital world? We now have a greater need to work anywhere, on any device, which provides a great opportunity to source and develop talent more widely.

The candidate journey and employee experience continue to be key. Employers and suppliers will want to continue to showcase their purpose, but this may be harder to demonstrate if everything is virtualised. Organisations will have to think of more creative ways to stand out. This has provided an opportunity for the student industry and has levelled the playing field for employers and suppliers.

This crisis has highlighted those training providers who have reacted quickly and effectively, those that have innovatively and creatively embraced technology. I believe students will be watching those employers and training providers who have adapted quickly. I think it is an exciting time for us to reflect, review and lead the way with new ways of working that match the needs of the organisations we work in. For example, if ‘growth hacking’ methods work to attract customers, why wouldn’t we do the same to attract entry-level talent? At the very least, employers will need to adopt a hybrid model for the class of 2021.

Covid-19 has challenged us to develop virtual solutions in a very short time frame, but it’s also been an exciting time to be part of the student industry, to shape and deploy agile and more remote ways of recruiting and developing the best entry-level talent. Digital will now play a role centre stage. I’m ready to perform on that stage, who’s with me?



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