How effective is employer and university engagement?

Sep 28, 2020 | Sector & policy

New research gets to the bottom of employer and university engagement activities.

The AGCAS employer engagement task group with support from the central AGCAS team and the ISE, begun a research project that aimed to create a typology of interactions between employers and universities, evaluate the effectiveness of these activities from both perspectives, and answer the question, once and for all, ‘is the careers fair dead?’

A survey open to any AGCAS member with employer-facing interaction within their role, was open between January and February 2020. The survey received 108 responses from 69 universities. To supplement this data with the perspective of employers, we used data from the ISE’s ‘Inside student recruitment’ report, alongside eight in-depth employer interviews.

Here are some of the key findings on employer and university engagement:


Blended approach

The most common careers or employability-related interactions between students and industry facilitated by universities prior to March 2020 were employer skills workshops, followed by single employer talks and generic vacancy advertising services.

The most effective employer engagement activities from a university perspective were careers fairs (general and sector specific), followed by structured year-in-industry schemes, internship/shadowing programmes and employer skills workshops.

According to ISE data, careers fairs were also the most effective employer engagement activity, followed by employer talks and workshops; leading us to conclude that careers fairs prior to March 2020 were alive and well.

However, our in-depth interviews with employers give a more nuanced view with more positive discussion about the value of small, tailored events.
We conclude that a mixed approach across different activities is often the most effective, where quality conversations and volume of interactions are both important measures for employers.

To further increase complexity, the definition and methods for measuring effectiveness differ across employers and careers professionals, something we hope to interrogate more in the future.


Working together

In interviews, employers defined partnerships with universities as relationships based on mutual understanding, trust and transparent communication that result in bespoke activities, exclusive opportunities and tangible recruitment outcomes.

All careers and employability services that participated in the research proactively target employers with whom they want to build a relationship. The most common factors that influence whether universities decide to target an employer are whether or not the employer already engages with them in some way, the employers’ sector and the geographical location.

In a post-pandemic world, will the flexibility resulting from increased remote working lead to universities targeting a more geographically diverse range of employers, and vice versa?

In interviews, employers discussed the importance of universities approaching them collaboratively to build holistic partnerships, rather than for transactional conversations.

It is more effective when universities approach employers having already done their research and presenting them with solutions to the challenges they face, rather than with a generic list of all the services the careers service has to offer.

Careers and employability professionals flagged the importance of two-way transparent communication and advised employers to, wherever possible and prudent to do so, share intelligence on student application and success rates.


Transition to virtual

At the time of the research survey (January – February 2020), only 21% of employer engagement activities were delivered virtually by universities.

The only activities to be more commonly delivered virtually than face-to-face were generic advertising services (e.g. social media, posters, plasma screens), vacancy handling (e.g. advertising) and targeted advertising services (e.g. targeted emails).

Even more starkly, only 5% of the activities rated as most effective by universities were delivered virtually, and none of the activities in the list of top ten most effective for universities were primarily delivered online.

Less than a month after the survey closed, the UK went into lockdown and universities and employers rapidly moved online.

Employer engagement teams and graduate recruiters have been exploring various iterations of what might replace careers fairs virtually, from avatar-style fair software to combinations of web pages, webinars and video content.

Presentations and skills sessions have moved to webinar formats and many are innovating with online speed networking and using new technology, as well as social media to broaden reach.

As a research team, the stark switch from 20% virtual delivery to 100% left us questioning the value of the research findings. But, the rapid changes over the past few months are evidence of the substantial shift across the profession, which has been delivered as activity becomes reconceptualised.
Our research gives us quantitative evidence for what the employer engagement landscape looked like before the pandemic, and provides us with a new research direction. We are launching a series of pulse surveys that will allow us to directly compare the employer engagement landscape before, during and – hopefully – after the pandemic.

Read the AGCAS report Evaluating the effectiveness of employer engagement

Read ISE’s ‘Inside student recruitment’ report.

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