Student recruitment bounces back

Apr 29, 2021 | Sector & policy

ISE’s Tristram Hooley shares our latest student recruitment data and why it gives us cause to celebrate.

Last year proved to be a difficult one for everyone involved in student recruitment. However, it was clear that things could have been much worse.

Following our annual recruitment survey I wrote that while recruitment had declined during the pandemic, it hadn’t collapsed. The recruitment survey told us that most employers were expecting a bounce back during the 2020/2021 cycle.

Since the recruitment survey ISE has been hearing a lot of positive noises coming from our employer members. Organisations seem to have made it through the third lockdown with most remaining optimistic and some even finding that the recruitment team is coming under pressure to increase hiring from the wider business. But it has been difficult to substantiate this bounceback.

So, in April we ran a poll of our members. Almost 200 employers responded from 135 different organisations to tell us how recruitment was going this year.

Things are looking up

We asked employers to tell us whether they were going to recruit more or less students than last year.

The largest proportion of employers told us that they are recruiting around the same amount as they were last year, but there is a clear shift in a positive direction. With more employers increasing recruitment than decreasing it. Only 16% are recruiting less graduates, 11% less school leavers and 20% less interns.

Reported change in the volume of recruitment in 2021 in comparison to 2020

Within this generally positive picture there are some sectoral variations. In the Retail & FMCG sector 38% are reporting shrinking numbers of graduates and 36% shrinking numbers of interns and placement students. The Energy, Engineering & Industry sector is also reporting 22% less graduates and 40% less interns and placement students. Finally, a third (33%) of respondents in the Built environment sector are reporting shrinkage in the number of school and college leavers they are recruiting.

Despite the recognition that the bounceback is uneven, the positive trajectory seems clear. When we compare the proportion of respondents who are growing and shrinking student recruitment to the picture from last year it is dramatically more positive.

In each of the main hiring categories respondents are far less likely to be reporting that they are seeing recruitment shrinking. We have looked at how April’s poll compares to the annual recruitment survey and found that graduates there is a 28 percentage point drop in the number of respondents reporting shrinkage, for school and college leavers it is a 44 pp drop and for interns and placement students it is an 18 pp drop.

The proportion of respondents reporting that their hiring was shrinking or growing in 2020 and 2021

Is the recession over?

So, does this mean that 2020 is the recession that never was and that the UK economy has successfully weathered the storm? This data on the hiring behaviour of student employers is certainly good news, but it is important not to get carried away.

There is still a long way to go between now and the end of the season. Hiring numbers could shift again if anything substantial and unexpected happened with Covid or the lockdown. Even if this doesn’t happen there is still a big question mark over the long-term trajectory of the market.
It would be nice to think that 2020 was an unusually bad year and that it is just a blip, but of course it is equally possible that 2021 proves to be the exception. While economists are generally sounding an optimistic note, the end of the furlough scheme in September will be a critical moment. April’s poll has more insights about what ISE members think about this.

But, let’s celebrate while we can. It looks like 2021 will be a good year for student recruitment, that businesses are growing and that there will be more opportunities for young people. What is more the pubs are open and summer is coming. What could possibly go wrong…

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