The college recruitment Zoom boom is here to stay

Students may be returning to college in-person, but so far most recruiters are following them virtually.
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Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

In the Before Times, recruiters vied for top talent by hitting as many college career fairs as possible, shoving branded promotional materials into seniors’ sweaty palms, blathering with unmasked mouths about their development programs, then packing up the show to do it all again an hour down the road.

This was certainly true for the big four accounting firms. According to Rod Adams, the US talent acquisition and onboarding leader for PwC, the company traditionally hosted an average of 1,500 recruitment events each year to fill 12,000 entry-level positions.

In an effort to stay on top, each year the recruitment cycle started earlier and stretched further into the calendar year. HR Brew asked Kathy Schaum, executive director of university talent acquisition at accounting giant KPMG, about the length of the recruitment season, and she just laughed, saying, “It feels like we’re always recruiting.”

Until, suddenly they weren’t.

In 2020, Covid-19 brought most on-campus visits to a halt and recruitment became almost entirely virtual by necessity. This fall, colleges are back IRL, but recruitment remains significantly online: According to Jordyn Elliott, PR manager for Handshake, a recruiting software for college students, 97% of schools and 93% of employers planned to host virtual recruiting events during the fall semester, and over 61% of total events will occur online.

Virtues of Virtual. According to Adams, this is a trend that will last: “We’re not back anywhere like we were before the pandemic, and I don’t expect us to be.”

Schaum agrees, and explains that switching to predominantly virtual programming unlocked an unprecedented level of efficiency that is “hard to match.”

“Before the pandemic, we were repeating the same presentation a hundred times at a hundred different campuses,” Shaum explained. “We realized pretty quickly we didn’t have to do that anymore: We can hold one or two national events and let students dial in.”

It’s not just top firms that are embracing virtual options. Internx CEO Nicholas Bachewicz  explains that virtual recruiting gives small firms a fighting shot at attracting top talent. In the past, if students chose to talk with a recruiter from a small firm, they might be missing an  opportunity to connect with the big dogs during the limited time of a recruiting event.. Now, with the flexibility of virtual recruiting, students can talk to everyone.

Bachewicz told HR Brew, “Traditionally, smaller companies or non-consumer-facing brands struggle to draw in students. For in-person fairs, those companies had to physically go out into the crowd to try and meet with students. With virtual, it’s much easier for those companies to attract talent. They can target and invite their ideal candidates to separate events.”

Reaching out. Streamlining information sessions into large, nationwide calls opens up time for targeted outreach and gives virtual teams the opportunity to reach more students.

Schaum explained that, when deciding which colleges and universities to visit, KPMG previously assigned schools into four tiers of desirability based on “size of the program, rank” and number of high-performing hires from past years. They then allocate recruitment resources accordingly. This process, Schaum and Adams both acknowledge, traditionally favors visiting elite, large institutions. With virtual recruitment, recruiters can connect with students they might have otherwise missed.

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“Before the pandemic, we were using virtual events to expand our outreach to diverse students. Covid basically accelerated our efforts,” Adams said. “It’s obviously much easier to interview students, regardless of what school they go to, if you’re virtual, versus tied to physically getting to a campus.”

As a result, PwC’s recruitment at HBCUs is way up: This year, PwC will recruit from 35 HBCUs in addition to holding open nationwide calls. In the past, Adams estimated they might have targeted just five such schools.

Dante Lee, founder of Diversity Job Board, and told HR Brew by phone that he sees a similar new found commitment to diversity recruiting that extends outside the Big five accounting firms.

“I’ve been in this industry for 22 years. Before, everyone said they wanted diverse hires but there was no pressure to hold companies accountable [to meeting their goals,]” Lee explained. “Now, after Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, everyone is watching. Virtual recruiting lets companies reach more people and now they actually care to do so.”

Handshake’s Summer 2021 report found that women, students of color, and neurodiverse college students preferred virtual career events and interviews and were more likely to apply to jobs after attending a virtual offering. The students found online events less anxiety-inducing, more accessible, and, due to a lack of distractions and background noise, better for fostering connection with employers than traditional career fairs.

As Christine Cruzvergara, Handshake’s chief education strategy officer, told HR Brew: “Black candidates also report feeling more “seen” in a virtual interview... Students are feeling more psychologically safe, less limited by implicit bias or the requirement of having to vy for recruiter attention, all of which suggests that virtual technologies are actually helping to foster a more inclusive recruiting process.”

But, but, but…Virtual recruitment isn’t a silver bullet to solve diversity pipeline problems. Recruiters may be happy to host information sessions online, but they still favor meeting applicants one-on-one and in person.

Schaum told HR Brew, “If we’re trying to build relationships, the preference is still to meet in person.”

Indeed, at PwC and KPMG, recruiters are using the time freed up by virtual recruitment to offer in-person, one-on-one interviews. Despite an increased focus on diversity, these interviews are still mainly occurring at long time firm favorites, which typically are Predominantly White Institutions.

Bottom line: Data suggests virtual recruiting works. This fall, after conducting most recruitment sessions online, PwC received 73,000 applications for their open positions, a significant increase compared to the 33,000 applications they received in 2020 and 49,000 applications they received in 2019.—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Susanna Vogel via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SusannaVogel) or simply email [email protected].

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.