Recruiting (and being recruited) in challenging times

Sam Harris is Deputy Director at the NUS Charity

It’s a challenging recruitment market for SUs – and most of the rest of the labour market too.

Since the pandemic there have been growing reports of skills shortages in certain professions and significant challenges in recruitment for employers.

Covid-19 has had a major impact around attitudes towards work including when, where and how people want to work. Alongside the impacts of Brexit and the cost of living crisis, this has resulted in a highly unpredictable, complex and difficult talent environment.

If 2021 was the year of the Great Resignation, and quiet quitting was the trend of 2022, what will 2023 be remembered for?

Evidence has also shown that many job-seekers are paying greater attention to culture, inclusion and wider benefits before making decisions about who they want to work for. This is particularly the case for those in the earlier stages of their career.

So, in a massively challenging and complex recruitment market, with increasingly selective job applicants, how can students’ unions / associations attract and recruit the best talent to our membership services roles?

Prioritise and invest in it (time and money)

Henry Ford said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. Dusting off the same old advert and throwing it on SU Careers may have been enough to get some great applicants five years ago. It may be enough now, but it’s unlikely.

If we genuinely believe that our people are the most important thing that makes up our students’ unions, then we really can’t leave this to chance. Doing recruitment and selection well takes time (whether that’s HR or the line manager). It’s important to dedicate the time and energy to plan properly and execute a properly thought-through approach to recruitment.

Articulate your offer

SUs are, in our view, amazing places to work. At their best, they are inclusive, fun and purposeful organisations. However, we don’t always see them sold to their full potential in recruitment adverts and packs.

The advert, jobs page on your website and recruitment pack are all key places to outline why someone should want to work in your organisation. What are your values? What is your culture like? What are the overall benefits? Things like flexibility, enhanced parental benefits and hybrid working will be important for many applicants, so if you offer them, shout about it.

We love the way that Manchester Students’ Union places culture and values right at the top of their jobs page. The way that City Students’ Union sets out information for candidates like job perks and details about the local area is also great.

You could record short videos of conversations with staff in the team giving authentic insights into the culture. You could share staff engagement survey results or quotes from staff, helping prospective candidates to build up their understanding of what it’s like to work in your organisation. You could organise an informal Q&A session where potential candidates can hear from current members of the team.

Also, don’t feel that this is just about putting a positive spin on your role. If there are certain challenges within a role, be willing to be candid about them upfront. It’s better that a job applicant sees the full picture at this stage rather than 3-months into the role.

Understand your audience and tailor your advertising

For some roles, you may be looking for people who already have an understanding of SUs, but for the majority you’re likely to need to cast your net wider. It’s worth spending some time thinking about what are the different pathways that may lead to someone applying for your job.

If you’re advertising your role on CharityJob or Third Sector Jobs, you’ll probably need to spend more time explaining the world of SUs than in your advert on SU Careers.

Sometimes our job titles can be a bit niche and exclusive within SU membership services. Again, think about tailoring to your audience. When you’re advertising to a wider audience will “Course Rep Coordinator” or “Student Voice and Representation Manager” actually mean anything? Don’t be afraid to call your role a volunteer manager or project coordinator if that’s what will make sense beyond our bubble.

Leverage your social networks (and those of your team)

LinkedIn can be a useful platform for building connections and showcasing the culture and professional side of your organisation. If your SU doesn’t already “own” your presence on LI and Glassdoor, that’s a good place to start.

Really think about how these channels can be used to share content relevant to potential job applicants. This is about more than sharing the occasional “we’re recruiting” post – it’s about building up a network of people that may be interested in working with you if / when the right role comes up. This takes some active management and discipline in engaging effectively with your audience, but could be worth it in the long-term.

Also, when you do have vacancies or key messages, encourage your colleagues to share them through their professional networks and on Linked In. Whilst this has limitations, it’s a useful way of spreading your opportunities to the widest possible audience.

A transparent and inclusive process

Make sure when you advertise, you have a really solid plan and timeline around the process. Advertise this clearly (including interview dates) and let prospective candidates know what will be expected at each stage. Communicate well and “keep them warm” throughout the process.

More and more SUs are trying different things within their selection processes. It’s becoming more commonplace to share interview questions (or at least topics / themes) in advance with candidates. Feedback is often that this helps to create higher-quality, authentic conversations during job interviews.

There also seems to be greater understanding that job interviews, on their own, are fairly poor at determining potential and role suitability. To get the right qualities and skills for a role, a balanced approach is likely to give better data for a selection panel. This might include a presentation or a written exercise.

Really try to think through what the day-to-day requirements are of the role and align the selection process to that. If the job involves lots of data analysis, then give the candidates some data to interpret; if it involves designing and delivering training, ask them to do this.

And what about job applicants?

If you’re looking for your next role in SUs, then the obvious answer is to look for organisations that are doing all of the above. These are likely to be the students’ unions / associations that are committed to being great employers and developing their people.

Try to be focused about the kind of organisation that you’re looking to work for and what work you enjoy, and thrive, doing. Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses and look for opportunities that will give you more chance to spend time doing things that you’re great at.

If you’re interested in a role, we’d always advise contacting the recruiting manager and taking time to talk to them to build your understanding of the role and organisation. You don’t need to use this as an opportunity to sell yourself – you can do that later. Be inquisitive and ask questions to help you ensure that you understand the context and have properly thought yourself into the role.

There’s no doubt that the recruitment market is unpredictable (for employers and applicants). That’s unlikely to change soon, but what is certain is that if we want to get different outcomes (more candidates, depth in quality, greater diversity) then we need to do things differently. We think these steps can help, and we also know we’ll continue to learn and adapt based on what works and doesn’t in our own context.

For more ideas and chat about recruitment in SUs come along to our session at Membership Services Conference on Wednesday 16th August at 3pm. We’ll be building on these themes and sharing other ideas and tips for recruiting (and being recruited) in a challenging market.

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