· 4 min read · Features

The old model of ‘graduate recruitment’ is dead: why few employers are winning the war for talent


In 1906 the economist Vilfred Pareto developed his ‘Pareto Principle’, more commonly known as the 80-20 rule.

He observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population; he then went on to notice that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. I believe graduate recruitment is a great example of the 80-20 rule; 80% of the best graduates are being attracted to the 20% of recruiters who are doing something the rest aren't.

So, what are the best recruiters doing to get the best talent and why is the rest of the industry missing the mark?

I was recently at the Association of Graduate Recruiters Conference in Newport - a gathering of the leading firms that hire graduates. It's always a great conference (this was the 8th year I had been) and there is normally a moment that stands out.

This year I was sitting in a presentation and one of the delegates, recently promoted from Health & Safety to looking after graduate recruitment at a major blue-chip organisation, turned to me rather disappointingly and said: "The problem is, when we try and recruit final year students, all the best ones have gone".

To me this summed up the problem for the majority (roughly 80%) of the industry and why many firms are failing to secure the graduates they need to grow their businesses. Too many graduate recruiters, who often lack experience, are failing to understand the fundamental shift that is happening in their industry and the march that some of the best operators in the sector are stealing on them in the battle to find the best employees.

The old conventional model of 'graduate recruitment' is dead.

In this model graduate recruiters would arrive on campus, and with much expense and fanfare, market their vacancies to final year students in the Autumn term, the so-called 'milkround'. This marketing activity would include everything from sponsored drinks to free t-shirts (I've never been quite sure how this communicates what a job involves)- anything to get a student's attention.

These final year students would then apply for the graduate roles, and if all went to plan, go off for interview in the Spring, get their offer and then start their graduate job once their exams were done. I remember talking to Michael Heseltine who told me how he had set up his 'Directory of Graduate Opportunities' in 1957 to help market these vacancies - it was a tried and tested model. However as competition for the very best candidates increased, firms started offering internships for students in their second year, if the internship went well they would be fast tracked to a full job offer. Many recruiters now offer internships.

And this is where the real leaders saw they could get ahead of the rest of the pack - why not think about students pre-internship. Those recruiters who are serious about getting the very best have built an impressive method of recruitment that constantly delivers them a pipeline of the people they need to find. They have moved from a 'farming' approach of spray and pray marketing to generic 'graduates' to a 'hunting' approach of really working out who they need to be talking to and when. For example - 'we have software roles to fill, so let's talk to STEM students in the first year'.

Organisations such as PwC, Accenture and Ernst & Young have build early identification schemes with the likes of insight days, open days and boot camps to engage and identify students from sixth form and older.

They know the characteristics they are looking for their businesses (such as client facing skills, high levels of numeracy and drive) and when they spot them, either at an event or skills session, they put them on 'watch lists' with a view to keeping them engaged with the business and hopefully the student making an application.

The most advanced industry to have done this is investment banking - 75% of graduates who join banks will have worked for the organisation at some point before. The reason for this is that the industry has a lot of American banks who bring with them an often more focused and competitive approach to recruiting that forces other firms to ensure they compete. We are also seeing this trend in the legal sector with firms such as Hogan Lovells offering Vacation Schemes for first years.

This process of early identification is also highly beneficial for students. In a time of £9,000 fees, record student debt and graduate unemployment at its worst since 1995, students are keen to know as much about the world of work as possible and be equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to get ahead. Also, this approach is highly educational as its about teaching students about different career options.

Early identification and engagement means that firms that do try to undercut their rivals by engaging the limited number of bright employable graduates that do exist, can also get ahead. The approach also delivers financial benefits to the firms who use it - it's far more cost efficient to invest in snaffling up the people your business needs as quickly as possible than spend vast amounts on expensive marketing to third years (and lots of money on generic and uninspiring 'job boards') when the competition have already bagged all the best graduates.

So, 106 years after Pareto came up with his 80-20 rule, the best recruiters are making sure they're in the 20% of organisations reaping 80% of the benefits. If you're not already in that 20%, you need to be thinking how you can join them, fast!

James Uffindell (pictured) is CEO of Bright Network, an organisation that specialises in connecting sixth formers and first year undergraduates with recruiters, including Clifford Chance, Innocent Drinks, Deloitte, Mind Gym and Credit Suisse