How are employers attracting the right graduates?

Blog posts

8 Dec 2015

Wendy HirshWendy Hirsh

Employers are often portrayed as moaning about the quality of young people entering work, including graduates. A major study, led by Emma Pollard of IES, conducted jointly with HECSU and recently published by BIS, is more optimistic about employers’ experiences with the graduates they take on at first degree and higher degree levels.

Over 75 employers mixed by size, sector and location in the UK were interviewed in depth, as were 30 other organisations involved in graduate recruitment including university careers services, organisations supporting small firms and so on.

Finding the right applicants is the biggest challenge for employers

Employers look to the brainpower of their graduate recruits to learn quickly and to help them analyse and address business issues and to bring in new ideas. They may also look for specific knowledge and skills related to a particular subject or course, for example in science, technology and business. On the whole, employers think that the graduates they recruit perform well. Most employers are realistic about the need to build on the skills their graduate recruits arrive with to get them fully up to speed and to develop their careers later on.

Connecting with appropriate applicants emerges as the biggest challenge for employers. Some find it hard to get enough applicants, including some small firms who feel they are not very visible to students. Others attract huge numbers of applicants, especially to general graduate recruitment schemes, but would prefer small numbers of higher quality applicants. Even in 2014, when the research interviews were being conducted and when the economy was proving slow to pick up, several schemes looking for high-potential entrants had not filled all their places.

Employers may be happy with those they recruit, but many are concerned about the quality of those students they do not select. Some described a ‘long tail’ of students of much lower quality, lacking the communication and people skills needed in almost all graduate jobs. Employers are also looking for recruits with positive attitudes to work and an interest in their business and its customers. So, for the employers in this study, recruitment is very much about looking at the whole person and what they have to offer in terms of attitudes and experience, as well as underlying intellectual ability and relevant skills. Many employers in this study were consciously balancing their graduate intake with other sources of recruits, including apprentices who were sometimes seen as easier to retain than graduates.

It’s not all about Russell Group universities and 2:1s

Career management skills, including researching job opportunities and presenting themselves well in applications and interviews, are vital for graduates in today’s highly competitive labour market. Employers observed differences between universities in terms of how effectively they help their students develop these so-called ‘employability’ skills. It is an area in which some universities, even those usually seen as prestigious, do not always serve their students well.

Another myth debunked by this study is that graduate recruiters primarily focus on elite universities, such as those in the Russell group. Employers visit or form links with universities for a wide range of reasons, including strength in specific subjects; location; demographic diversity; and previous good experiences with their graduates. Now that most opportunities are advertised via websites anyway, ‘targeting’ universities is less about only recruiting from some institutions and more about raising visibility as an employer with at least some groups of students who may fit their needs.

The study shows employers as searching for methods of shortlisting and selection that are more valid assessments against their recruitment criteria than the old filters of UCAS points or 2:1 degrees. These methods also need to be cost effective. On-line recruitment has opened the door to newer ways of sifting candidates, especially through the use of on-line cognitive tests and situational or strengths–based exercises before selecting those to see at a final assessment centre/ interview. Telephone or video-based assessment methods and the increasing use of social media to attract and keep in touch with applicants are growing.

Work experience during study can be a win-win

Work experience (most often paid for) is another strategy for forming relationships with prospective employees and this study shows a continuation of the trend for this to happen in the early years of study. This is great for students who know what they want to do, know how to access work experience – or are well advised in this area by their university – and find an employer who wants to offer them at job at the end of their studies. Smaller employers may need help in finding the right kind of students for their own work experience opportunities, but when it worked well they were likely to offer employment after study, sometimes even creating a new job for a student who performed well and seemed a good fit for their business. Students who are less decided about what they want to do at the end of their studies may be disadvantaged by the emphasis on early work experience and employers would do well to think about offering well-structured work experience opportunities to new graduates and to those who have entered ‘non-graduate jobs’ as well as to students. Not all those with the right skills and attitudes get snapped up early, especially those students who choose to concentrate on their studies and seek work later.

The project examined the complex issue of social mobility and its relationship with graduate recruitment. Most employers sought to be ‘fair’ in terms of not discriminating according to a student’s background and selecting purely on merit against clear selection criteria. Positive action to recruit those from less advantaged backgrounds is not prevalent except in some parts of the public sector and in some professions – such as law – that have been criticised as socially exclusive.

Graduate recruitment practices are an interesting window into how employers of different sizes and types are thinking about their future workforces and how they go about finding the people they want to employ. This study found a lot of goodwill towards today’s graduates and some interesting innovations in recruitment practices. There is plenty of scope for closer collaboration between employers and universities in helping students acquire relevant skills and experience and in making it easier for employers and students to find each other in the UK’s large and very complex graduate labour market.