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Pitching to grads: how to sell your business to the next generation

Good graduate recruitment takes more than putting an advert on Seek, writes Ruth Callaghan, and Australia’s top companies are now investing heavily in graduate communication. Here’s why.

Every year I have the privilege of working with the Australian Financial Review on its annual Top 100 Graduate Employers project — a massive undertaking that involves looking at the strategies and success of leading listed and private companies as they hunt for the next generation of talent.

Over the four years I’ve been involved, I’ve seen the lengths some of Australia’s biggest names go to in order to secure the best and brightest for their graduate intakes.

But it might seem strange so much is invested in the hunt for the perfect grad, given that — as we are often told — many degrees produce far more graduates than the workplace can possibly absorb.

Take law, for instance.

Taught in 41 law schools around the country, there were 14,600 graduates in law disciplines 2015 according to the AFR. (The Law Society thinks graduate numbers were closer to 7500 in that year, based on its own analysis of university data.)

Regardless of the total output, though, there are just 66,000 working solicitors, meaning only a fraction of each year’s graduates will secure a job.

In 2016, out of 11,500-odd applications for summer clerkships in NSW alone, nearly 10,000 failed to secure an interview, with only 825 final offers — representing an application success rate of 7 per cent.

The figures were worse for graduate positions in 2016: 2732 applications, just 133 first round interview offers, and a tiny 55 offers. Only 2 per cent of applications in that year led to an offer of a job.

That kind of market for talent means thousands of smart, legally trained minds are going begging, while law firms can take the pick of the crop.

Similar issues are seen in other fields. Only 61 per cent of humanities students get full-time work after graduation, with similar figures for psychology, communications, agriculture and — perhaps surprisingly — science and mathematics.

These fields are also the most likely to have graduates who say their skills and education are not used in whatever full-time job they eventually secure, mostly because there are too few suitable jobs in their area of expertise.

Given this, surely the market for graduates is so bountiful that employers don’t need to work too hard?

Sadly not.

The market for graduates is no longer about getting the right discipline but in getting the right candidate.

The big message out of Australia’s top graduate employers is that degrees don’t matter as much as they used to — in some cases, they don’t matter at all — but that the real tussle is in wrestling from your competitors the kind of agile, adaptable, fast-learning graduate who can shape-shift to plug any given gap.

There might be 7500 graduates a year with degrees in engineering, but there are not 7500 highly adaptable engineers, able to switch between internal research roles, customer-facing consultancy roles, deployment in the field and corporate practice.

Those who can are prized, not just by engineering employers but every other sector as well.

The second key learning from companies looking to attract graduates is that they have had to change the way they speak to this new cohort.

Employers say they have moved away from communications and advertising that was focused on what they as a business had to offer.

Now, the overarching theme is how working for the employer will benefit the grad.

AECOM is piloting a program of flexible hours. KPMG is cool with grads wanting to try out their own start-ups or take on other jobs. Optiver brings their workers breakfast and lunch. Flight Centre lets them incorporate their plans for travel.

Even ALDI offers grads a phone, a car and an eye-wateringly good starting salary.

So, what do these trends mean for employers who want to beef up their graduate recruitment strategy?

The first lesson is that you need to know your market. The big end of town is working exceptionally hard to differentiate from their competition, speak to the right pipeline of talent early, and talk the talk – whether that means offering a more fun, millennially focused recruitment strategy or just hanging out with students on campus hoping they will like them back.

The second lesson is to get to the graduate recruitment market in multiple ways.

The most successful employers at securing graduates have a multiple touch-point strategy, investing heavily in their social and digital campaigns, doing face-to-face events and roadshows, even having former graduates produce video blogs about their experiences or Instagramming their corporate team events.

A growing number of firms have launched ‘try out’ days in which students with some years to graduation can come along, be fed and entertained for a day in workshops, while they test out whether the employer is the right fit.

It might be a hard sell in your C-Suite to offer so much to students who might not choose you in the end, but this early investment helps firms get a quick look at the talent on offer, while eliminating graduate tyre-kickers down the track.

The third big lesson is to experiment.

Many employers who launched a new graduate approach in 2015 rethought it by 2016 and again last year. This year they are again trying something new.

In the same way that grads need to be adaptable, so too do the companies who want to hire them. Many of the best rely on the feedback of existing graduates to define and refine their offer each year, so they get their pitch to graduates exactly right.  

And the last — and perhaps most important — lesson, is to incorporate fun.

Some of the most serious employers in Australia, like IBM, KPMG and Accenture, have introduced games into their recruitment process, while graduate employment site GradConnection runs its own eSports League for competitive computer gaming.

It’s all about understanding the graduate psyche.

A 20-year-old today was six when Facebook was founded, nine when the iPhone first launched, and has spent their formative years attached to a range of entertainment devices.

They have spent a decade or more attuned to electronic dopamine hits so to win their favour, it helps if the recruitment process is a stimulating one.  

You can read the Australian Financial Review’s annual Top 100 Graduate Employer lift out here. Associate Director Ruth Callaghan works with a range of education institutions, providing specialist advice in strategic communications and industry issues.