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How to attract great graduates

The job market is picking up but graduates are as unpredictable as ever. Here's how to attract the best

Hiring graduates has never been simple – and this year’s crop is a bundle of contradictions. Some applicants are demanding, while others are desperate. Some are over-confident, others over-cautious. So stereotype them at your peril. Having said that, as a careers journalist focused on young people and the founder of website Graduate Fog, I’ve spotted some clear patterns in the last 12 months – and most of these observations are backed up by HR professionals’ own experiences. Here’s your guide to staying one step ahead of the class of 2016...

DON’T rely on a strong consumer brand

Gone are the days when graduates assumed fashionable brands were great to work for, and less cool brands were bad employers. Discussions on Graduate Fog about the best companies to work for prove that young people have become more savvy about employer brand versus consumer brand – and they know the two can contrast wildly. In October budget supermarket Aldi trumped tech giant Google in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers, and Graduate Fog’s readers regularly accuse global mega-brand the BBC of having elitist recruitment practices.

DO speed up your systems

Today’s graduates expect swift responses. “Nobody likes it when the recruitment process drags on,” says Simon Hollowood, director of recruitment at global market intelligence agency Mintel, which has streamlined how it recruits technology graduates in particular. “We invite every applicant to complete an online assessment within 24 hours – and those results are assessed within a further 24 hours. For the positive ones we schedule a phone interview as soon as possible, and – if that goes well – a follow up face-to-face interview soon after that. On average, the whole process is completed in a fortnight. Candidates are delighted at the speed at which we operate. The unsuccessful ones appreciate knowing where they stand and the successful ones feel really wanted, which is a great start to their career with us.”

DO check your website works

Are you sure your candidates’ user journey actually works? “We discovered over the past year that some people who clicked apply hadn’t gone on to complete their application,” says Lee Griffiths, senior brand and attraction manager at Nationwide, which launched its new streamlined careers website this month. “For users who know what they’re looking for, our new search function now provides fewer, more relevant results. For those who are less sure what role they’re suited for we’ve simplified the navigation down to three clicks.” With more than a third of traffic coming to Nationwide’s website from mobile devices, the firm has also invested in optimising its mobile website design.

DO seek out diverse candidates

Not attracting a good mix of graduates? Don’t expect them to come to you – instead get out and find them. “Even in the age of social media there is still nothing more powerful than meeting potential candidates face-to-face,” say Ashley Hever, UK & Ireland talent acquisition manager at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “We have some great partnerships – for example, with the Warwick University netball team and Reading University’s LGBT society. We’ll also be at Westminster University’s National Student Pride event in February.”

DO expect drop-outs

The most in-demand graduates have twigged that if you want them then others probably will too – so they’ll keep shopping around even after they’ve accepted your offer. “Over the last two recruiting seasons the number of graduates reneging on accepted job offers has been gradually rising,” says Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers Research. “That’s likely to become a serious problem for employers in 2016, especially those who previously relied on hiring people from their internships or other work programmes.” Facing the nightmare scenario of being left in the lurch as late as Easter, recruiters are making contingency plans in case the drop-out rate continues to rise. Options include a secondary top-up recruitment round later in the year, and reconsidering previously rejected candidates.

DO ensure fair access to internships

You’re paying interns more than the minimum wage? That’s great. But don’t assume that’s all it takes to ensure truly fair access. For example, requiring applicants for your paid role to have a large portfolio of previous experience may mean you unwittingly favour those who have done unpaid work first. Also consider offering travel expenses to candidates who live far away. Interview no-shows can be the result of people not wanting to admit they can’t afford the train fare.

DON’T assume careers fairs are dead

Think all the action happens online these days? Not so. “Although four-fifths of students turned to employers’ websites as their main source of information on graduate jobs last year, attendance at campus careers events during the 2014-15 recruitment season was at its highest level yet,” says Birchall. Businesses are investing heavily in campus recruitment events in 2016 too, because the vast majority of job hunters still like to meet their prospective employers in person. “Talking directly to recruiters, managers and recent graduates remains the only reliable way for candidates to weigh up an organisation’s culture, and is often the most persuasive part of employers’ recruitment marketing campaigns,” Birchall adds.

DO find fun ways to broaden your reach

Global insurance and investment brand AXA scored a big hit last year when it tempted more than 25,000 under-25s to play its Great Global Adventure online game (the winner bagged a round-the-world trip). The idea behind it? To build a talent pipeline for the firm’s global graduate programme by creating a game designed to appeal to people with a “global mindset”. The key is relevance. Graduates, or anyone for that matter, rarely respond well if they feel they’re being patronised with random challenges (and memories of Currys asking interviewees to perform a Daft Punk dance routine in 2013 still linger). Remember this is graduate recruitment – not The X Factor Six-Chair Challenge.

Tanya de Grunwald is a journalist and the founder of graduate careers website Graduate Fog, which now offers corporate sponsorship. She campaigns on fair access to the best graduate jobs.