College education is expensive – horribly expensive. Students and parents in other countries, particularly the UK, might moan about the price of the university experience, but in comparison to their peers in the US, what they are being asked to pay looks like small change. Tuition fees at Oxford or Imperial, for example, are just under $12,000 a year – almost a quarter of what a Harvard student without financial aid would be expected to stump up. In the rest of Europe, a world-class education at France’s Ecole Polytechnique or Université Paris-Saclay does not have to break the bank.
As a consequence, total student debt in the US is now in excess of $1.5 trillion with a recent study by the Brookings Institution suggesting that as much as 40% of those holding this debt may be forced to default by 2023.
Faced with this, it’s perhaps no surprise that so many students and prospective students, not to mention their hard-pressed families, are heavily focused on the thing that will help them get out from under this daunting financial burden – a well-paid job with a major company.
But how should they go about securing this ‘glittering prize’?
A new research project by the talent acquisition and management specialist, Alexander Mann Solutions, mainly designed to show prospective employers how to engage with and recruit the brightest and best on campus, also provides some very useful guidance to individuals on the other side of the equation. The resulting report, Getting There First – How to Win the Battle for Campus talent in the US, is based on in-depth interviews with a wide range of big name employers, such as GE, Google, BNP Paribas, Medtronic, Rolls Royce and Merck & Co., and shows how the way such organizations find and hire talent is creating a whole raft of opportunities for those willing to embark on the job hunt with the seriousness it merits.
Lesson 1 – Start early The days when a student could afford to shelve job hunting until their junior or senior year seem to be well and truly over. Many serious employers are now engaging at the sophomore or even freshman year through informal events which happen as early as campus orientation. And on some campuses you may even find a GE employee helping with the heavy lifting as freshmen move into their dorms or apartments. No matter how immersed you might be on the newness of college life and the prospect of lectures and exams ahead, this is the ideal time to begin making connections that will get you clearly on a potential employer’s radar.
Lesson 2 – Get noticed Some of the most innovative employers are taking a highly targeted approach to finding and hiring talent by plugging into dedicated tracker systems. As Michael Dunckley, Head of U.S. Campus Recruiting at BNP Paribas, says in the report, “It’s obviously difficult to accurately measure talent so early on…but there are plenty of early indicators such as academic performance, the selection of tough majors, membership of ‘hard to access’ clubs and societies and a demonstrable interest in the business of finance.” So start doing all you can to build a compelling profile as soon as you can.
Lesson 3 – Embrace digital (but don’t rely on it) Every major employer recruiting from U.S. campuses now seeks to engage with potential hires online and particularly by using platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn and dedicated tools such as HireVue. Student job hunters consequently need to embrace every opportunity possible to link up with a prospective employer in this way and, perhaps most importantly, to take part in virtual events, such as hackathons, which allow participants to show hard evidence of their relevant skills and capabilities. However, in the course of their research, Alexander Mann Solutions didn’t find a single, significant employer that had completely given up on visiting campuses in person. Almost everyone interviewed from investment banks to hi-tech companies still seemed to believe that the ‘human touch’ alongside online engagement was still the most effective approach. And if employers think that, then students need to take note.
Lesson 4 – Get an internship. But get the right internship Although many large organizations now recruit what they describe as ‘early talent’ direct to full-time programs, the great majority still seem to believe that an internship of some form is the most logical and effective entry point. However the research found many companies admitting that, in too many cases in the past, students had been taken into internships simply because that’s what the organization had always done and not necessarily because there were specific and obvious full-time jobs in prospect at the end of them. However, that appears to be changing dramatically to make any internship a genuine ‘working interview’. As Amy Wilson, Director of Early Career Talent at Medtronic says in the report, “It’s vital to have a robust planning process…to align on what we need both for short-term summer projects, but more importantly, for long-term career prospects.” Campus job hunters should consequently think about asking both smart, but also potentially tough questions about where an internship is actually going to lead.
Lesson 5 – If possible, push on an open door – If you are a straight A student at an Ivy League university the number of open doors out there is likely to be quite high. But if you don’t mix in such elite company, don’t despair. Instead, look at where the real talent gaps are in the market and then aim for the one that fits your individual circumstances. Even before selecting a college that means thinking about exactly which program is going to give best bang for buck. While many big companies admit that they have to prioritise particular universities because of finite hiring resources they also say that their target list is now more flexible than it might have been in the past and will embrace specific innovative programs on less obvious campuses, particularly in areas such as cyber-security, machine learning and AI. It also means understanding how many employers are making huge efforts to increase workforce diversity, for example by bending over backwards to bring more women into roles based around the all-important STEM subjects.
Lesson 6 – Remember the old rules Don’t be fooled by all the talk of how employers recognize the need to treat millennials and Generation Z as if they were made of glass. What is clear from the Alexander Mann Solutions research is that many of the old rules of engagement still remain in place. One interviewee in the report says, in what was doubtless a somewhat exasperated tone, that she still has to advise candidates to dress smartly for a video interview and, if that interview is happening in their dorm, then the background doesn’t look like a bomb has gone off in it. Play the game seriously or don’t play at all.