5 Reasons to Maintain a Strong Campus Recruiting Program During This Economic Downturn

In late 2000 and 2001, several dramatic events occurred simultaneously: the dotcoms became the “dotbombs,” the economy took a steep downturn, and the tragic events that occurred on September 11th pushed the country into war and significantly impacted the already battered economy. Corporate layoffs were announced daily. Companies stopped hiring, cut spending on marketing and training, and placed restrictions on travel and other non-essential spending. Some companies shut down their campus recruiting programs entirely.

Sound familiar? This is not unlike what we are seeing today. According to the newly-released Michigan State University 2008-2009 Recruiting Trends Survey, total college hiring will decrease by 10% in the coming year. While belt-tightening during an economic downturn is unavoidable, we argue that campus recruiting activities should not be eliminated altogether. We have been in the staffing business for 25 years and run large-scale campus recruiting programs at Fortune 500 companies, such as Agilent Technologies, Ernst & Young, CIGNA, and Honeywell. We have experienced as many down-markets as we have market upswings.

When faced with tough financial conditions, here are five reasons why smart companies continue to recruit on campus.

Improve the quality of the talent you are able to recruit

While other companies are licking their wounds and shutting down their campus recruiting machines, smart companies use this time to recruit at better schools than they have in the past to attract the best of the best. Because fewer companies are recruiting on campus, these smart companies know they can have their pick of the talent litter. “The current economic downturn creates a vacuum of sorts where some companies’ absence allows you to woo the best in class. A year ago, these students would have been already locked up by companies via a bidding war in September,” says Adam Ward, manager of Global Campus Recruiting at Qualcomm. Thus, tough economic times can actually open up doors for companies that seize the moment to compete for top talent.

Block and tackle competitors

Smart companies know that this is a great time to take market share away from competitors, and this goes for talent, too. “For a company like Qualcomm that is not a consumer-branded organization, this is an opportune time to do some real brand-building beyond the typical career week visit. We see this as an opportunity to make several return trips to campus and really maximize the time where there are not many other companies that are sharing the stage,” says Qualcomm’s Ward. Now is the time to increase your presence on campus, refine and intensify your targeted messaging to top talent, and jump into the hearts and minds of student job seekers who might have never before considered your firm.

Thwart looming retirements and a drain of intellectual capital

It is no secret that the next 5 to 10 years will produce a wave of baby boomer retirements. Hiring campus talent year after year ensures that your company builds a pipeline of future leaders. Gaps in your campus recruiting intake programs can lead to gaps in your talent supply and a weak source of talent waiting on the sidelines.

As Steve Canale, GE’s US manager of Recruiting and Staffing Services, notes: “GE’s global campus talent acquisition recruitment is mission critical — entry-level talent joins our leadership development programs and helps to guarantee our future leadership pipeline. We could not protect our knowledge transfer and be thought leaders without a steady state of top campus talent joining GE every year. Talent development is a core competency at GE and is taken very seriously across the organization.” Truly strategic companies will follow GE’s lead and recruit recent graduates who will join the company, cultivate their skills, and become the future leaders of the company.

Campus continuity pays off

Ask IBM. During the economic recession that took place in the early 1990s, IBM took a hiatus from campus recruiting. According to Eletta Kershaw, program manager of IBM’s U.S. college recruiting program, “As I understand it, it took us some time to regain a foothold at our key schools.” Today, IBM’s campus recruiting landscape looks very different. IBM actively recruits at more than one hundred universities across the country. Its presence goes far beyond traditional recruiting events: recruiters sit on advisory boards and panels, guest lecture in classes, and partner with diversity organizations. They also show students how at IBM, they can tackle meaningful projects that help the world work better. Says Kershaw, “Students like to know that as today’s world has become smaller, flatter and ‘smarter, they can make a difference, from creating new green technologies to solving food shortages through smarter distribution channels.”

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Their now long-standing involvement at their key recruiting schools has enabled them to get this message across to students loud and clear, and their recruitment brand has become well known among university students. These key relationships are essential to getting the best students year after year, regardless of the economic situation.

Campus recruiting is the most cost-effective way to source and retain top diverse talent

Anyone at Procter & Gamble will tell you that campus recruiting is the lifeblood of the company. Nearly 100% of P&G’s fresh talent comes from its campus recruiting program. P&G realized many years ago that sourcing top talent from the world’s best colleges ensures that P&G can recruit a large number of highly skilled candidates while avoiding the high costs of search firm fees and excessive salaries. Moreover, these recent graduate hires are groomed and promoted from within, enabling P&G to lead the way in employee retention and realize a significant return on its investments in recruiting.

One of the best-kept staffing secrets is that employees who originally came into the company as interns feel a sense of belonging and are retained at higher rates than employees who did not start as interns. This is particularly true of employees from underrepresented minority groups, which can be the most difficult and expensive group of candidates to recruit. A strategic campus recruiting program that includes a robust internship program enables a firm to gain access to top diverse talent in a cost effective way.

However, the key to a truly sustainable campus recruiting program is scalability. Even during tough economic times, many campus recruiting programs continue to thrive, and strategic companies are able to continue to have a presence on campus because their hiring programs can be scaled to appropriate levels to fit the demand. Robin Renowden, Intel’s global college recruiting manager, says it best: “It’s prudent for college recruiting managers to have a predefined, scalable recruiting strategy that enables them to dial-up and dial-down as the external winds of change are blowing. The strategy should define a minimum level of campus engagement that continues even in the worst of times. Given today’s economic environment, we need to dial our recruiting down but not be myopic. Without a predetermined strategy that outlines how to utilize resources depending on various levels of demand for talent, college recruiting organizations run the risk of being forced to cut too far.”

Conclusion

The best-managed companies with visionary leaders will seize the opportunity to exploit the current economic morass. Today, students are eschewing the glamour and high earning potential of the bulge bracket firms for more stable and secure positions in government and industry. There is no better time in recent memory for your organization to swoop up top talent from universities. Timing is everything and the time is now.

John Flato is vice president of research & consulting for Vault.com, the Web’s leading resource for insider career and education information. A veteran campus recruiting expert, he has led campus recruiting programs for major organizations including AlliedSignal (now Honeywell), CIGNA, and Ernst & Young. He also served as the director of career management at Georgetown University’s MBA School. He is a frequent industry speaker and has won numerous awards from the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the Employment Management Association.

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