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How are graduate employers adapting to the challenge of COVID-19?

March 2020

So far many of us have been focusing on the immediate changes to our working practices necessitated by COVID-19. But student recruitment teams have had to make quick decisions that may have bigger and more long-term impacts, writes Tristram Hooley

It will probably come as no surprise that graduate employers have been responding quickly to the threat of COVID-19. A couple of weeks ago, the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) started to hear rumours about cancelled activities and even reneged offers.  

We quickly determined that we needed to move beyond anecdotes and gain a more thorough picture of what was happening by conducting a survey. The survey was open for a week in mid-March and provides us with some clear insights on how graduate employers are responding.1

Most employers are seeking to move their assessment centres and face-to-face interviews into an online or telephone format

Changes to recruitment programmes 

Like everyone else, graduate employers have seen their working days transformed. Almost all (92%) graduate employers reported that their teams were moving to home working, with 85% reducing travel and 95% moving meetings online.

Many graduate employers are also cancelling direct interactions with the education system (e.g. 69% have cancelled visits to universities), and work experience placements (63%). For most the crisis has devastated their face-to-face activities designed to attract potential hires, but these decisions have been rapidly overtaken by events as universities have also now shut down much of their face-to-face provision.

Activities,No change ,Deliver online/telephone ,Reduce ,Cancel
Attending careers fairs,5,12,15,72
Visits to universities,6,18,13,69
Insight/open days,7,23,5,68
Providing work experience opportunities,15,8,14,63
Running mock assessment centres,17,27,3,56
Running business games and enterprise competitions,20,21,5,55
Giving employer talks and workshops,5,47,14,40
Assessment centres,11,60,8,31
Face-to-face interviews,6,71,6,23
Contributing to the academic/subject based curriculum,42,3,8,19

COVID-19: Challenges for student recruitment and development, ISE 2020

Employers have been less willing to cancel elements of their own recruitment process with only 31% cancelling assessment centres and 23% face-to-face interviews. For some this amounted to a complete cessation of recruitment, with one respondent writing that 'all recruitment activities have been stopped for the moment' and another noting that 'recruitment will be on hold until coronavirus measures are lifted'. However, most employers are seeking to move their assessment centres (60%) and face-to-face interviews (71%) into an online or telephone format.

The problem with this switch to online assessment is that it is logistically complex and is inevitably taking some time. Nonetheless, many employers reported that they were rapidly reorganising their recruitment process and changing the elements within it to what could be delivered online. As one respondent wrote, our 'assessment centres will be cancelled, and we will rely on our video interview and online assessment tools more heavily'. Some reported that there were elements of face-to-face processes such as group exercises that were difficult to recreate online and so were having to be cut. 

Where face-to-face provision is going ahead firms are putting in place health tests. As one respondent wrote 'all attendees for external recruitment interviews will have to be asked a number of questions relating to their status of health in regards to the coronavirus'.

Impact on hiring

 The logistical challenges associated with recruiting large numbers of young people would undoubtedly result in a reduction in hires on their own. However, more worrying than the short-term impact of COVID-19 on recruitment processes, is the longer-term impact on the demand for entry-level talent.

Hiring change,Graduates,Non-graduates,Interns and placement students
Substantial decrease,3.6,3.5,9.5
Slight decrease,23.4,19.8,22.1
As planned,42.3,37.2,34.7
Slight increase,1.8,1.2,2.1
Substantial increase,0.9,0,1.1
Don't know,27.9,38.4,30.5

COVID-19: Challenges for student recruitment and development, ISE 2020

Around a quarter of graduate employers (27%) say that they will be recruiting fewer graduates. These impacts come on top of a student labour market that is already stagnant.2 What is more, reductions in hiring may be even more marked in SMEs where around 34% of the graduate population typically work.3 Unless this downturn is addressed there is the danger that unemployment and underemployment will grow for the COVID-19 generation.

For short-term hires like interns and placement students the picture is slightly worse with almost a third (31%) of employers saying that they are going to reduce recruitment from this group. One employer reported that 'internships may need to be cancelled and delivered in a different format - more an engagement process perhaps rather than work experience'.

Another respondent agreed that these short-term hires were most vulnerable to being cut altogether, saying that 'the programmes most at risk of changes and possible postponement or even cancellation are summer internships with these due to start at the end of June'.

The responses that employers have given to all of the questions in this survey need to be understood as a snapshot of a rapidly evolving situation. Many openly state that they do not know what their response to the crisis will be or what the likely medium and long-term implications will be. If those employers who are currently unsure, decide to reduce their recruitment levels, the situation for young people may become critical.

Implications for the sector

The findings of this study suggest that COVID-19 is already having a very substantial impact on the student labour market. It is hampering recruitment and dampening down the number of hires planned for this year. In response to this firms have moved quickly to develop strategies and alternative working arrangements and are continuing to explore and develop new ways to work.

The long-term implications are still not clear. If the crisis is relatively short many firms will still be in a position to put recruitment and hiring processes back into place before September. Whether they will choose to do so will depend to a large extent on how badly the economy has been hit by the crisis.

If the crisis and restrictions drag on, it is likely to have a serious impact on the life chances of young people leaving the education system this year. If the economic impact is substantial, this problem may also impact on those students graduating next year and beyond. The government, higher education and graduate employers need to start planning for this eventuality. On top of all of the other risks associated with COVID-19, we are facing the risk of a generation of young people being lost to the labour market. This risk needs to be taken seriously as part of the plans to address COVID-19.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects. If you are a recruiter, find out how Prospects can support you in challenging times.


  1. COVID-19: Challenges for student recruitment and development, Institute of Student Employers, 2020.
  2. The ISE pulse survey 2020: Taking the temperature of the graduate labour market, Institute of Student Employers, 2019.
  3. Labour market myths: 'Graduates all work for big businesses', Luminate, 2018.

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