Kylie Cook takes a look at what's in store this year for employers looking to recruit talented graduates, and provides some top tips for taking on labour market challenges
The early talent market is enjoying a rapid bounce-back from last year's slump, but we are on track to see a candidate's market, warts and all, in 2022. The UK's unemployment spike was unexpectedly brief and peaked far lower than the worst-case estimates, but there are both perennial and pandemic-related factors that will make for a challenging labour market. I expect businesses will need to realign themselves with university partners if they want to see palatable levels of engagement this year.
Competition for the next generation starts now
Dubbed 'The Great Resignation',1 the trend of job-quitting throughout the pandemic mostly stemmed from people realising that life is short, and commuting is no fun. I expect students will be scrutinising their job offers in the summer, and that more of those offers will be reneged. Current students have missed out on a lot already, and I don't expect many will fancy late nights in the office and long travel times if they could be working remotely or flexibly with another employer's offer.
On top of this, based on birth rates we know there will be fewer 45 to 60-year-olds across the next 15 years as well as a decline in 21-year-olds entering the workforce until 2024.2 The cherry on top is that we've already got two years of pent-up recruitment demand and vacancies are at record levels,3 so there is no denying that we have a significant contest on our hands.
Student engagement is back to its old tricks
Last year many employers were going it alone with their student engagement. Hiring teams generally reported decent attendance for their digital sessions and surprisingly good traction from their target audiences. This was all rosy for a while down to the captive audience of bored students who were forced to hole up in their bedrooms. Toward the end of last year, however, those digitally-fatigued students were freed from the shackles of lockdown and had developed a misplaced fatalism about the graduate labour market. So, quite understandably, they're now off having fun and making up for missed experiences in their university years.
Hiring teams and careers services shouldn't worry too much about the inevitable lack of student engagement in the first instance. There isn't a great deal you can do about it, so you risk wasting precious resources at a time when students are not listening. Use that time, inclination and budget to build just-in-time resources - a careers 'Netflix', if you will - so that when the students realise they need some help you'll have a host of slick, amazing toolkits and workshops for them to access. They will resurface and re-engage, and you will be ready.
Candidate confidence is clearly low and wraparound support is needed, particularly for underrepresented groups who have been the most disadvantaged throughout the pandemic.
Work experience isn't the selection tool it used to be
Employers are reporting that graduates are less work-ready and have fewer employment experiences. I'm afraid that you reap what you sow - many employers stopped offering placements and internships over the last two years, and students have had significantly reduced opportunities to do part-time work in bars, restaurants and shops. Of course, both employers and universities have toiled to close this gap with case studies, projects and virtual work experiences, but these were not born equal. A student stating that they completed digital work experience might well have had an actual job for the summer, working in a remote team with real responsibilities. They may also have simply logged in to an employer's platform for two days of simulated work tasks, gained some feedback, and listed this as digital work experience on their CV. I am not suggesting the latter isn't valuable, but it is certainly very, very different.
Somehow us early talent professionals are going to have to unpick these differing experiences and be more intentional about what we offer and how we will assess it. While the simulations are great for potentially improving the diversity and geography of our applicants, they are nowhere near as meaningful or impactful as true work-based learning experiences. And of course there is the knock-on effect for what will be required to successfully onboard, induct and train these cohorts in order to close the experience gap.
Candidate professionalism is leaving a lot to be desired
Linked to this lack of work experience, at Gradconsult we've had reports (and experiences) of unprofessional behaviour from graduates in the recruitment process. I think the lack of work experience is a factor, but university services have understandably gone above and beyond in order to keep students happy these last two years. Many students have been frustrated with their higher education experience and this is manifesting in candidate behaviours in the recruitment process. Improving professionalism and empathy within the recruitment process is not an easy problem to solve, particularly at a time of low student engagement. This will require partnership between academics, careers services and employers to reach the widest audience, with employer engagement in curriculum being key. If you are a student and you are reading this, please remember that it hasn't been a breeze for everyone else!
The fact of the matter is that many students have a consumer attitude towards their university education anyway, and this has likely been exacerbated by the necessary change in university services throughout the pandemic. Employers can't (and shouldn't) bend over backwards the way that universities do, and that means the recruitment window - post-university, pre-employment - is rough terrain for all involved, particularly this year. I hasten to add that alongside the professionalism issue, candidate confidence is clearly low and wraparound support is needed, particularly for underrepresented groups who have been the most disadvantaged throughout the pandemic. As a starting point, try directing your students/applicants to the great resources that Prospects has on offer, such as the Future You series.
What can you do about it?
My top tips for taking on these labour market challenges are:
- Put extra effort into your 'keep warm' activities this summer, and make sure your candidates are well looked after for the remainder of your recruitment process. And, of course, your strategic review at the end of the season should scrutinise the overall candidate experience.
- If your pre-Christmas application numbers were disappointing, it's worth a conversation in your teams and with university partners about the shifting student behaviours we're seeing and how you can take a more agile approach in 2022, perhaps with a recruitment 'sprint' in the summer months.
- Remember that the upcoming classes had state-awarded or school-awarded grades, have only known higher education in the time of COVID, and have had a genuinely reduced opportunity to gain work experience. They will likely need your support and encouragement as they navigate their early career.
Also in this series
- What's new in 22? - Charlie Ball looks ahead to the next 12 months in the graduate labour market, with apprenticeships, training and the hybrid workplace all on the agenda.
- Tech, climate and neurodiversity on recruiters' 2022 agenda - The ISE's Nicola Thomas expects graduates to be increasingly climate-conscious in their choice of employer and recruiters to focus on neurodiversity in 2022.
1. The Great Resignation: 69% of UK workers are ready to move job, HR News, 2021.
2. UK birth rate 1950-2022, Macrotrends.
3. UK Job Vacancies (thousands) - Total Services, Office for National Statistics, 2021.
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