5 University Recruiting Trends to Know for 2021

It’s been an unprecedented and challenging year, and college recruitment looks different than ever before.

Over the course of several months, COVID-19 forced college recruitment teams to upend tried-and-true strategies and reshape their approach to finding and connecting with early-career talent. From virtual events to remote recruitment to online internships, traditional university recruitment strategies faced countless changes and rapid adaptations. So what’s in store for 2021? To prepare for what comes next, we’re taking a closer look at the most important lessons from the past year and highlighting what trends college recruitment teams should bring with them for hiring seasons ahead.

Trend No. 1: Virtual recruitment is here to stay – but it isn’t a replica of in-person college recruitment. 

When COVID-19 forced life online back in March 2020, it wasn’t certain how long social distancing requirements would be the norm. Even as college classes shifted online, graduations took place virtually, and internships went remote, there was some hope that in-person meetings and events could return by the fall. As the summer went on, however, it became clear that the only way to guarantee concrete plans was to schedule events and meetings virtually. For many college recruitment teams, the decision to exclusively recruit virtually was a new one – and it was a decision that had to be made in a relatively short time frame. As many college recruitment teams found out, there are some key differences between virtual recruitment and in-person recruitment. Traditionally, campus recruiting strategies have included a defined set of core institutions and relied heavily on career fairs and on-campus interviews. By contrast, virtual recruitment efficiently reaches candidates at schools across the country and leverages a diverse set of strategies, including sourcing, events, and proactive engagement. These fundamental differences meant that adapting to a virtual style of recruitment wasn’t as easy as replicating tried-and-true strategies in an online space – something that many employers found through participation in things like virtual career fairs. According to a poll from the National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted in October – November 2020, 90% of employers attended a virtual career fair in Fall 2020, compared to only one-third of employers that reported attending a virtual career fair the previous fall. However, despite the widespread adoption of virtual career fairs, many employers found themselves frustrated with the experience, especially as it pertained to student attendance and the impact of technical difficulties. In the same poll from NACE, 73% of respondents reported experiencing technical difficulties while participating in virtual career fairs, and 71% of respondents said that attendance numbers for students participating in virtual career fairs was significantly worse than attendance for in-person career fairs. When it came to comparing quality and value between virtual career fairs and in-person fairs, the results were nearly split in thirds: a third of respondents said the value/quality was worse, a third said it was about the same, and a third said it was better. It’s not surprising that one of the hallmarks of campus recruiting is difficult to transition to a virtual world at scale. Having organic interactions in a short period of time with a high volume of students is one of the key elements that made in-person career fairs successful – and it is the hardest part to transition to an online setting. Almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s unclear when in-person events will return. In fact, 95% of respondents in NACE’s poll said that non-essential travel had been eliminated, and 60% of respondents said that the date for re-evaluating the lift on travel restrictions – which would also include in-person events, from career fairs to conferences – is ‘indefinite.’ In other words, virtual recruitment is here to stay. And while there are certain parts of ‘real’ life that we can’t recreate in a virtual environment, teams that adapt and innovate their approach to campus recruiting can emerge with a stronger strategy and a more diverse slate of candidates. The shift to virtual calls for a multi-faceted approach to recruitment, giving a more diverse array of students increased avenues to engage with employers. Even with the eventual return to select campuses for in-person networking events and career fairs, the advantages of virtual recruitment will outlast its necessity.

Trend No. 2: D&I is a priority for the next generation of workers – and students want to see real results.

From COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color to the national protests against racism and police brutality, the events of 2020 have underscored the importance of having diverse teams and inclusive company cultures. While most top companies have developed robust D&I initiatives, the spotlight on racial equality has pushed many employers to review how they can do even more to move the needle on representation and inclusion. As Generation Z continues to enter the workforce and progress in their careers, their expectations of having diverse teams will only reinforce the importance of these initiatives – and it’s essential that employers not only communicate what their companies are doing to build more diverse and inclusive workplaces, but show real results. Real results – such as the hiring and promotion of diverse talent and having diverse executive teams – tops the list of what students want to see from D&I initiatives. In a survey conducted in August 2020 for our report, ‘The Gen Z Job Seeker,’ we asked students about their perception of company D&I initiatives following a summer of protests and renewed focus on social justice. 68% of students said a company’s diversity & inclusion efforts became more important to them in the wake of these protests. We also asked students what initiatives and outcomes actually signaled a true commitment to equality. As seen in the graph below, students overwhelmingly perceive that actions speak louder than words. From the data shown in the graph above, it’s clear that students want to see that D&I initiatives aren’t just for show. Gen Z professionals want to see that companies are hiring and promoting diverse talent, and that diverse talent has a path into leadership at the company. Our data also revealed that candidates who are typically underrepresented in the workplace tend to view diversity and inclusion efforts as more important. When analyzing the results of our survey through the lens of different demographics, we found that women who identify as underrepresented minorities (URM) were the most likely to say that diverse leadership and the hiring and promotion of diverse talent signifies a company’s true commitment to equality. Non-URM women had the second largest share of respondents who believed diverse leadership and hiring of diverse talent was essential to workplace equality, followed by men who identified as part of an underrepresented group. In contrast, men who are not part of an underrepresented group care the least about how a company illustrates their commitment to D&I – only 51% said the hiring and promotion of diverse talent showcases a commitment to equality, compared to 85% of URM women. Women – both URM and non-URM – also care significantly more about internal professional development initiatives for diverse groups. For companies that are lacking in diversity, the results of this survey might feel like a catch-22: underrepresented candidates are more interested in joining companies that prioritize diversity and inclusion, and companies that prioritize D&I are more likely to have a diverse workforce. But every company has room to improve, and there’s no better time than now to build a workforce that is representative of the populations your company serves. If you want to attract the next generation of leaders to your company and create a workplace where they can thrive, investing in D&I initiatives that produce long-term results is a business imperative.

Trend No. 3: An empathetic and personalized candidate experience is a must-have to attract top, diverse talent in a virtual world.

The loss of in-person interactions and face-to-face communication has been one of the most challenging parts of navigating work and life during the pandemic. This is especially true when it comes to the human elements of recruiting. Forging authentic connections and getting candidates bought in to a company and its culture can feel more challenging when all communication takes place via phone or video call. In fact, many candidates identified the lack of personalization and connection as a top challenge for virtual recruiting – in the survey for our report ‘The Gen Z Job Seeker,’ 82% of student respondents said they were concerned there would be less personalized interaction during events, 69% believed it would be more difficult for recruiters to get to them virtually, and 61% believed that it would be harder to get to know a company’s culture without in-person opportunities. After a summer of first-time remote internships and almost a year of remote work for many companies, we now know it’s possible to form authentic connections and have personalized communication – it just takes some extra thought and coordination. When it comes to candidate experience, the same rule applies. And the companies that are able to add additional touchpoints to their candidate experience in this virtual world will end up with candidates that are better prepared for the hiring process and more enthusiastic about the company itself.   There’s another reason to think through your COVID-era candidate experience: students are going through an incredibly challenging time and often have varying access to resources and support. By creating a candidate experience that prioritizes empathy, education, and personalization, you can create a more inclusive hiring process. The good news? You don’t have to sacrifice efficiency to do it. While virtual recruitment can feel like it lacks personalization, the strategies that make up a strong virtual recruitment strategy actually lends itself incredibly well to creating a Gen Z-friendly candidate experience. Sourcing, for example, can address several candidate concerns at once. A RippleMatch-led survey conducted at the onset of the pandemic found that 83% of students were concerned about their job search because they weren’t sure which companies were hiring. To remedy this, 80% of students said it would be helpful if companies reached out about open positions. While there’s less instability than there was back in the spring, inviting good-fit candidates to attend your events or apply for your open roles removes candidate uncertainty and creates a personalized experience – even if you’re leveraging an automated sourcing tool. Another common recommendation for creating a positive candidate experience during the COVID era: Being an advocate for candidates during the hiring process. Many candidates are going through the interview process for the first-time, and might be unsure how to put their best foot forward in virtual interviews. Sending out an interview prep guide to every candidate prior to an interview can help candidates stress less about logistics and focus on communicating what makes them the best candidate for the role. Even when onsite interviews and in-person recruitment returns, there’s no reason that personalization and empathy should be deprioritized. And the companies that make these elements an integral part of their early-career hiring process now will strengthen their employer brand with this generation in the long run.

Trend No. 4: Today’s college students are broadening their career interests, underscoring the importance of proactive outreach. 

2020 kicked off with one of the best job markets in recent history, which meant even entry-level candidates could be especially selective about the industries and career paths they wanted to pursue. COVID-19 changed all of that, hitting highly visible industries like entertainment, travel, and retail especially hard. Many consumer-facing industries that students were the most familiar with faced significant challenges, while less ‘glamorous’ industries like logistics, insurance, healthcare and telecommunications saw increased demand. As a result of the instability in the job market, we saw an increased interest in industries and career paths that students had not previously considered. In a RippleMatch survey conducted in April 2020 – following the onset of COVID-19 – 72% of students said they were applying for jobs outside of their preferred career path, while 68% said they were applying for jobs outside of their preferred industry. With student career preferences changing, companies that have previously struggled to attract top talent have an opportunity to get on the radar of talented students looking for stability in an uncertain time. Interest in new industries isn’t the only thing that has changed with the pandemic – what students value in a career has also changed significantly. In 2019, we surveyed 1,100 graduating seniors and asked which factors were the most influential to them when evaluating a job offer and listed a number of different factors to choose from. For our report ‘The Gen Z Job Seeker,’ we asked the class of 2021 the same question. The biggest evolution in values is the increased importance of compensation, job security, and work-life balance – no doubt a product of the uncertain economic landscape and personal impact of the events of this past year. Of all the factors students consider when weighing a job offer, company prestige ranks the lowest. Student job seekers are looking for employers that provide financial stability, professional growth, and personal support with an inclusive company culture and healthy work-life balance. And the young adults that began their college careers during this unstable time will likely follow suit with similar career values. Companies will have an advantage when connecting with talented students if they can begin establishing their employer brand early on with underclassmen and invest in targeted outreach and education for juniors and seniors. This is especially important for business-to-business companies that care about diversity. First-generation college students – who are disproportionately students of color – are often the first in their family to apply for roles in the professional sector, and won’t have the same kinds of connections and exposure to non-consumer companies. By investing in early education and proactive sourcing, you can connect with candidates who had no idea certain career paths existed or that their skills qualified them to apply. Even as the job market and consumer industries recover, strategic investments in employer branding – such as educational events, articles, and robust career pages – will pay dividends for companies in lesser-known industries.

Trend No. 5: How companies react to challenging times and support employees will have a lasting effect on employer brand.

The onset of COVID-19 led to incredibly challenging circumstances for employers and employees, from navigating layoffs to transitioning entire companies to remote work. Among these challenges: what to do with summer internship programs and how to onboard brand new entry-level employees remotely. In a series of small group discussions RippleMatch hosted in early April 2020, we spoke with 100 university recruiters about topics like changes to internship programs and virtual onboarding. Early on in the pandemic, there was no consensus on how long the pandemic would last and how that would affect fall recruiting, but there was a clear consensus on one thing: overwhelmingly, companies wanted to honor their commitment to college students and support them through unprecedented times. In the months that followed, we saw how companies went above and beyond to provide incredible remote internship programs and welcome new grads to the team virtually. We also heard how many companies approached internship cancellations as best as they could – with empathy and concern for students’ professional next steps. How companies handle challenging decisions and support their employees matters. When the dust settled on the spring and summer, college students began their fall job and internship search as the pandemic raged on. In our report ‘The Gen Z Job Seeker,’ we learned that a company’s response to COVID-19 – from remote work to layoffs to internship adaptations – was influencing student interest in working or interning at a company. As shown by the graph, the top concern is how a company is handling remote work during COVID-19 – 79% of students said they are looking into a company’s remote work experience and policies. And given the personal impact COVID-19 can have – on both mental and physical health – 71% of students are concerned with how a company supports the well-being of its employees. Stability is another concern for students. 74% of students are considering the stability of a company and its industry during this tumultuous economic time, 70% are looking into how the company has handled layoffs as a result of COVID-19, and 71% are considering how a company handled adaptations to internship programs. COVID-19 has defined the early stages of professional life for hundreds of thousands of students, so it’s only logical that a company’s response to the pandemic would influence their interest in a job or internship. Companies should take stock of their handling of the COVID-19 crisis and ensure that they’ve generated public materials such as blog posts or career page blurbs so that prospective candidates can easily find how companies have adapted in challenging times. University recruitment teams could consider directly sharing materials with students that are especially relevant to early-career candidates, such as articles on their remote internship programs, a blog post on how the company has supported new hires in the first 6 months at work, or how the company as a whole strengthens its culture while working remotely. Data from the two student surveys highlighted in our reports ‘Navigating Entry-Level Jobs and Internships During COVID-19’ and ‘The Gen Z Job Seeker,’ makes it clear that students are analyzing how employers treated their employees and interns throughout the COVID-19 crisis to get a sense of how they could be treated if they joined the company. Companies that have gone above and beyond to support their employees and prospective employees should be proud of their accomplishments – and they should ensure that early-career candidates are aware of how the company handled this difficult year. So what should college recruitment teams do next?  After a year of pivots and first-time strategies, there’s a lot to review for the upcoming hiring season – especially when we don’t know exactly what the year ahead will look like. That said, now is the perfect time to take a step back and review how your team can respond to the trends covered in this article and build on your hard work for the year ahead. Reflect on the ways your team thought outside of the box. 2020 was a year that required flexibility, creativity, and (virtual) collaboration. Instead of deploying the same campus strategies from previous years, college recruitment teams had to pivot quickly to connect with candidates successfully. Even as we settle into virtual recruiting and eventually return to campus, reflect: how can you continue to inject innovation into your approach to university recruitment? Take stock of the tools that worked. With the necessary shift to new strategies, your team likely brought on some new technologies. From sourcing tools to event management to virtual career fair platforms, review how each new piece of technology might have enabled your team to build stronger, more diverse teams. Establish a plan to build on successful strategies.   Of the new recruitment methods and strategies you tried this year, analyze which generated the best results. Did you introduce a new channel for sourcing candidates? Did you ramp up your digital recruitment marketing efforts on previously untapped platforms? Once you’ve identified the strongest strategies, you can establish a plan to build on your most successful outlets in the year ahead. Article written by Kate Beckman at RippleMatch

By contributor
contributor Profile Picture