Senior undergraduate Lawrence Ryoo said the recession and the subsequent soft job market are on college students’ minds daily. Although he was one of the lucky ones who got a job offer in the fall, many of his friends still are struggling to line up employment. “I don’t think [my classmates] have any idea what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s just so hard to predict.”
Ryoo, a business administration major at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, started his job search early — in the summer of 2008 — because he said he knew the job market “was tough already.”
After a full year of recessionary conditions, experts are now flirting with the word “depression,” and students are feeling the effects of the down economy on the entry-level job market. With an increasing number of heads to choose from, talent managers are working to distinguish the best candidates from mounds of resumes.
State of the Job Search
According to Tim Stiles, associate director of UNC Career Services, students can expect longer job searches and fewer offers. “You’re probably going to see fewer students with multiple offers and many students happy they have one,” Stiles said. In addition, while it generally takes students about three to four months to find employment in a good economy, he said it could take as long as six months now.
Indeed, the job market is challenging for all demographics. In early April, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the number of unemployed persons reached 13.2 million, which accounts for 8.5 percent of the population. And it’s not going to get better anytime soon: According to a recent National Association for Business Economics survey, experts expect the economy to continue to shrink throughout 2009.
Due to these economic conditions, many employers have been forced to change how they recruit upcoming college graduates such as Ryoo.
Mark Howard, university relations manager for Intuit, said he has noticed a significant drop in the number of employers attending career fairs.
“We are one of the dwindling numbers of recruiters or companies that are still on campus,” he said. “Even at some of the software engineering fairs I’ve been to, [which is currently a stronger area in the job market], the tables [used to be] 2 feet apart and now they’re more like 7 or 8 feet apart.”
“[The financial sector especially has] slowed down, essentially to little or no recruiting,” said Stiles. “The larger firms have pretty much said, ‘We’re not going to be doing recruiting, or very minimal.’” But many other firms realize the importance of maintaining a campus presence as a tool for future growth, despite the fact there currently is a dearth of open positions.
Strategies to Remain Strong
Many firms are hiring despite economic challenges to make sure they’re ready when the economy rebounds. One such firm is Plante & Moran, an accounting and business management consulting firm. According to Recruiting Director Paula Frerichs, the firm continues to hire about 200-225 college graduates each year.
“It really is the lifeblood of our growth because we have to hire at the entry level to make sure we have the talent we need down the road,” Frerichs said. “If we cut too far into what we do at our entry level, we’re really going to feel the impact of that three or four years out.”
Along the same vein, Howard said Intuit is taking an offensive approach to the recession; this includes maintaining a campus presence. “We really want to make sure students know that we’re not going anyplace, and we really think they’re a valuable asset to Intuit,” he said.
Even if an organization is not well-positioned for full-time hiring, there are a number of alternative options to “float” through the recession. For instance, some companies are expanding their internship programs, said Dr. Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University (MSU).
“One strategy is to take a student earlier,” he said. “And hopefully in three or four years, [when the interns graduate], this economy will turn around. The intention is, strategically, that we can just bring these people on fast-track as new employees.”
Gardner said another important tactic is for talent managers to make sure they build relationships with students. The younger generation appreciates having a personal link with a company.
“Companies that make contact over time and establish a relationship on campus with the students have an advantage because students respond to that,” Gardner explained. “Those employers that are not just coming to big career fairs and doing mass interviews, but [those that] form contacts with the students [are better poised for success].”
Closely linked with relationship building is employer branding. This also will give organizations an advantage when positions open back up after the recession, said Stiles.
“A lot of these large companies have invested too much branding themselves to just let go of the relationship entirely,” Stiles said. “Institutional memory turns over here [at UNC] with our students graduating each year. If you don’t keep that perpetual branding going, you’re going to lose it very quickly just being off campus for a year or two.”
Benefits for Recruiters
While economic circumstances have led to a bloated talent pool from which recruiters must select, there are benefits for them, too.
“The employer is the buyer, and this is a buyer’s market,” said Stiles. “So they can afford to be a little more patient.” In recent years, if employers waited until spring to recruit, much of the best talent had already been “skimmed” off the top. For this reason, many big employers did hiring in the fall.
However, now employers can afford to take their time, said Stiles. “Employers can do more just-in-time recruiting. Instead of hiring way ahead, they can get by with [waiting a few months] and still get great talent.”
Recruiters also have their pick. With fewer companies participating in campus activities such as career fairs, and more candidates in the pool, talent managers can be selective. Further, in addition to the recent college graduates, alumni who have been laid off are flocking to recruiting events, Howard said. “We’re seeing a lot more Ph.D. candidates, who otherwise would probably go for more theoretical work, reach out to us.”
What About Retention?
In addition to the recruiting piece, retention is top of mind for many talent managers. In a January survey of employers, nearly 40 percent named employee retention as their most pressing staffing concern, reported CCH, a business information and software solutions provider.
This fear is not unfounded, according to Stiles. Because of job market conditions, college hires are taking offers they might not have taken a second glance at a year ago, he said. When the market rebounds, some may look toward their ideal jobs once again.
Frerichs said Plante & Moran works to reduce the turnover inherent in the public accounting industry due to long work hours and rigorous ongoing training on technical skills. Yet, despite efforts, she said some employees may leave when the economy rebounds.
However, as a company with multiple business units and various job roles, Plante & Moran has the opportunity to offer students better-fitting positions within the firm if they find themselves unfulfilled, Frerichs said. “So when the economy turns around, and there [is] growth in all those other areas, our staff would not need to look outside of the firm to have [their preferred positions].”
Besides looking for other job roles within the firm, a number of other measures can keep young employees engaged and increase the chances they’ll stick around come better economic times. According to a 2007 study by MonsterTrak and MSU, young adults’ top five preferred job characteristics include: interesting work, good benefits, job security, chances for promotion and the opportunity to learn new skills. Companies that offer these opportunities to their workers often find the most success.
“For us, [a key strategy] really is continuing to develop opportunities for [employees],” said Frerichs. These opportunities include ongoing education and specialized career tracks to hone in on employees’ interests. Further, the company offers a number of benefits including flex time, activities and mentoring and training. These include meals and baby sitters when employees are required to work on Saturdays, as well as occasional after-work outings.
Intuit has tried to foster a community to engage its younger employees. Howard was involved in the creation of the NextGen Network, which is focused on early career professionals and facilitates socialization across business units. The group — now at 500 members — gets together for fun activities such as baseball games and also does volunteer work. “Things like that keep them engaged and make sure they have a social environment where they can connect,” said Howard.
Another benefit popular among young workers at Intuit is “unstructured time,” in which 10 percent of an employee’s paid work time can be spent on anything he or she is passionate about. In addition to increasing employee engagement, the company has directly benefitted from this activity: “A lot of our new product offerings and a lot of our innovation efforts are centered around ideas that come out of this unstructured time,” said Howard.
Most important in retention is to be proactive before it becomes a problem, he said. And this can happen with a little communication.
“It’s much easier to: 1) on the front end, communicate exactly what we’re looking for [in an] employee and let them know what types of employees have been successful at Intuit and, then, 2) on the back end, make sure there are programs and communication channels so any issues that might affect retention [are dealt with proactively],” he said.
With fewer recruiters participating in campus activities such as career fairs, and more candidates in the pool, talent managers can be selective.