Graduate recruitment: needle in a haystack

by Howard Grosvenor

04 Mar 2010

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With graduate unemployment at its highest for 12 years, undergraduates have their work cut out competing to get on the career ladder in 2010. Many top graduate recruiters have cut the number of roles on offer, or even postponed their schemes altogether and 90% of SMEs don’t plan to take on any graduates at all this year.

To make matters worse, research has shown that around 80,000 graduates who didn’t find work last year have joined the hunt again this year, significantly increasing the talent pool and competition for jobs. And the backlog is only set to become worse, with many students choosing to take time out before applying again next year.

As some of the biggest graduate recruiters around, this could have a huge impact on accountancy firms’ recruitment policy. While it is good news as there are lots of graduates to choose from, the intense competition means firms are inundated with applicants. Finding the best has become a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, particularly as many applicants have applied for jobs that they aren’t necessarily suited for in an attempt to spread their net as widely as possible.

Smart graduate recruiters are starting to realise that traditional recruitment methods are no longer enough. They must look for innovative ways to engage and assess graduates to give an accurate picture of their suitability for the role.

Creating a pipeline of talent

For a number of years the leading professional services firms have been increasingly focused on finding well rounded graduates with the ability to build relationships and manage people, rather than just looking at those who are top of the class academically.

This has led to the line between study and work becoming increasingly blurred, with students encouraged to think about their CV from the moment they start university. Those with a good understanding of their own strengths and areas for development are at an advantage when they become candidates. Many employers offer internships to first year university students and some even run programmes for those doing A Levels. This
allows them to engage with the most talented at an early stage and helps to ensure they have a pipeline of talent coming through in their final year.

Another recent trend is for graduate recruiters to organise challenges and competitions for students in order to engage with them further ahead of their graduation. A good example is the TARGETjobs Undergraduate of the Year Awards, which involves leading graduate recruiters such as KPMG and Ernst & Young, with the aim of identifying leaders of the future in industries from accounting to engineering.

The right tool for the job

When it comes to assessing candidates for job and company fit, psychometric tools continue to be a key resource –but these are being used more and more diversely and usefully than ever before.

Instead of being passive participants in recruitment, graduates today demand processes that engage and inform them, as well as assessing them. For example, a form of ‘self-assessment’ can prove valuable in deterring unsuitable candidates and to this end some employers have developed ‘realistic job preview’ and ‘organisation preview’ tools, completed by candidates before they apply. By giving immediate feedback on their likely fit to the job, company, corporate values and culture, candidates can reflect on their motivations for applying. Further along in the process, some employers also provide candidates with assessment reports focused on their ‘career development’, further enhancing their employer value proposition.

Assessment tools also now measure a wider range of key attributes. Concepts such as ‘judgement’, ‘innovation’, ‘engagement’ and ‘learning agility’ have joined core measures of numerical and verbal reasoning and measures of personality. These can be invaluable in helping to identify those elusive ‘all-rounders’ and give a far deeper insight into a candidate’s likely performance in the workplace.

Future leaders

There was a time when having a degree of any class guaranteed a good job and a decent salary for life. But that time is fast coming to an end, with change accelerated by the recession and rising levels of unemployment.

With ever increasing numbers of young people graduating from university, degrees and academic qualifications are becoming less and less important as differentiators of talent. Recruiters must think outside the box and focus on new ways to identify, screen and measure graduate candidates – as the future leaders of the business they are surely worth the investment.

Changing the game at kpmg

While academic qualifications are important for graduates applying to KPMG, the Big Four firm is primarily focused on finding all-rounders and those with the personal and professional skills needed to build successful client relationships.

In order to increase its chances of attracting the best, KPMG now targets students from their first year at university, with an internship specifically designed for this year group. It also runs sessions called ‘Get Ahead of the Game’ to advise students on how to go about looking for a graduate job and this runs alongside KPMG’s ‘straight talking – no spin’ brand building campaign involving a basketball challenge and freestyle basketball players.

All of this helps the company engage with undergraduates plus, this year it is also involved in the TARGETjobs Accountancy and Economics Undergraduate of the Year Award, with the aim of spreading the word even wider. When it comes to assessment, KPMG uses a personality questionnaire based on its global skills and behaviours. This is used to generate the questions to be asked at the interview stage allowing strengths and weaknesses to be explored in more depth.

Howard Grosvenor is managing consultant at SHL

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