Where next for graduate recruitment?

The future is still uncertain but some aspects of graduate recruitment look like they have changed forever following the pandemic, says Institute of Student Employers’ Tristram Hooley

Tristram Hooley is Professor of Careers Education at the University of Derby and Chief Research Officer for the Institute of Student Employers.

“Predicting the future is much too easy,” said science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. “You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same.” Bradbury’s advice is worth keeping in mind for any futurologists out there. Anyone can imagine an alien invasion or a robot uprising but it takes a talent like Bradbury to figure out what is going to stay the same.

Every year the Institute of Student Employers runs a survey with large graduate employers asking them to look at how they organise their graduate recruitment. As we analyse the data, we’re often struck by the level of consistency that we see from year to year.

The number of recruits goes up and down, new techniques emerge, and different issues come to the fore. But employers continue to recruit graduates in large numbers, be broadly satisfied with the candidates that they recruit, and use similar techniques to attract and select these students, including building longstanding and close relationships with universities, particularly through their careers services.

Pandemic fallout

In some ways 2020 was a shock to the system. Graduate recruitment dipped (by 12 per cent) but internships and year-in industry-type placements fell even further (29 per cent and 25 per cent respectively).

Over the past year, we’ve seen a strong recovery for graduate hiring and internships but a rather weaker recovery for placements. We estimate that graduate hiring and internships are getting close to pre-pandemic levels but they are still not there yet.

Perhaps more fundamentally we have also picked up a big change in how graduate recruitment works. Under pressure from lockdowns and social distancing requirements, almost all of the employers who responded to our survey (93 per cent) reported that they were now taking a mostly virtual approach to recruitment and selection. They also told us that 72 per cent of internships and 62 per cent of placements had been delivered virtually.

So, while the overall level of graduate recruitment hasn’t changed all that much, the way in which graduate recruitment operates has seen a big shift. But changes in the here and now don’t necessarily mean that there will be permanent changes in the future. So, we asked our respondents to look forward and say more about what the future holds.

What happens next?

The recruitment cycle for 2021-22 was already underway when we conducted the survey. So we asked respondents to tell us how many students they intended to recruit during the current cycle.

In general, the news was pretty positive, with most graduate recruiters planning to continue to scale up their hiring over the next year.

But for many, the way in which graduate recruitment and indeed graduate employment works may change. The shift to virtual recruitment seems likely to be maintained over the next year, with few employers feeling ready to shift back to face-to-face recruitment approaches.

Intriguingly, we are also seeing some employers experimenting with homeworking in a serious way. While most are seeking to shift their interns and placements to a hybrid or blended approach over the next year, relatively few are thinking about a full return to face to face.

A minority of organisations (13 per cent) reported that they do not require student hires to live where they work and almost a quarter (24 per cent) that they are now recruiting student hires who will be mainly based from home. While this shift to homeworking falls short of a complete restructuring of student employment, it is a substantial change for a minority of employers.

In the medium term

We also asked employers to look forward and reflect on what changes they were expecting over the next five years. Almost half (48 per cent) of the respondents expected that their recruitment would continue to be mainly virtual over the next five years and that they would increasingly automate the process of student recruitment.

A smaller proportion (20 per cent) anticipated that an increasing number of their entry-level staff would be based at home.

Employers were also concerned about a variety of factors that might have a negative impact on the overall level of graduate recruitment that they would be undertaking during the next five years. A substantial minority (42 per cent) worried that an economic recession could have this effect, with smaller numbers raising concern about a demographic dip (21 per cent), the impacts of Brexit (16 per cent), and the continuation of Covid-19 (14 per cent).

Reflections on the future

Overall universities can rest assured that there will be an ongoing market for their students. While a graduate recruiter might respond to crises by reducing their hiring, they quickly step up the level of hiring once the crisis abates.

What is less sure is whether the process of graduate recruitment will continue to work in the same way. There has been a decisive shift online which in the short term is impacting the recruitment process and leading to the death of old favourites such as the careers fair.

But in the longer term, we may be seeing the weakening of the office as the centre of graduates’ post-university lives.

Or does that just sound like science fiction?

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