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July 2021

Managing graduate recruitment in the new context

The last eighteen months has really forced employers to think about not only who their graduate recruitment brands should appeal to, but also how to capture and engage with graduates when the normal avenues of recruitment – face to face interviews, open days and internships – haven’t been able to take place. How do you find great candidates and how do you stand out from competitors to attract them? From a graduate point of view, the new recruitment world feels pretty bleak at present. In 2020 there was an 87% fall in recruitment in the most sought-after industries and 57% of employers recruited fewer graduates than in 2019. However, as we come out of the pandemic, things are looking rosier, and recruitment levels seem to be increasing again. We are going to take a closer look at the new generation – Gen Z – coming into the workplace and, through six lenses, we’ll suggest recommendations to ensure you attract the best of them.


But first, a word about this curious species known as Generation, or Gen, Z. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re Millennials Mark II. They’re very different. Authenticity is at the top of the list of things they value – they aren’t interested in curated social feeds or marketing-led jargon. What is it really like, warts and all. Purpose is important. They support causes about which they’re passionate, and they want the companies they work for to do so too. Related to this is their desire for integrity, and for employers to truly believe in the causes they support, following words through with actions. Honesty matters. They know their career isn’t always going to be easy. They know there will be late nights and sometimes it might even be a bit dull. They want to be told that, not given a sanitised view. They care strongly about diversity and inclusion (D&I) and it’s important that their employer has a strong programme around this. Diversity for Gen Z is something fluid, and you can exist in multiple cultures and worlds at the same time. Mental and emotional wellbeing is as vital as physical health – they’ll enjoy the free gym membership, but they’ll value achieving a good work life balance even more. And finally, they’re intrigued about what comes next. They’re not so interested in learning about a company’s rose-tinted heritage, but they want to know where you’re headed in the future, how you’re innovating, and what can come next for them in terms of personal development too.

Gen Z are digital natives. 40% of them would rather have working Wi-Fi than a working bathroom (that’s from an actual survey, we didn’t make it up!). 90% of them own a smartphone and spend on average 10.2 hours a day looking at content online. They look at a piece of content for around 8 seconds, not because they have low attention spans, but because they’ve spent their whole lives multi-tasking digitally and have developed the ability to digest and understand several pieces of content across different platforms at once (think of a typical teenager simultaneously Snapchatting their mates on their mobile while watching Netflix on the TV and researching a homework assignment on their laptop). It’s important to understand their digital habits because it should dictate the nature of your communications and how you communicate with them.

1. Be distinctive

The first of our recommendations is about messaging. Make it stand out and show your difference at every step. We looked at the top management consultancy firms and their graduate recruitment pages. Many said the same thing, with bold, colourful imagery and messaging focusing on the bombastic and superlative – a career with us will be the most challenging, the opportunities are extraordinary, you’re solving the world’s biggest problems and you’re going to make a huge impact. It sounds fantastic but there was nothing distinctive. And none of them thought to mention the last eighteen months. Except one. The landing page for graduate recruitment here was simple, with lots of white space and minimal imagery. It focused on Covid and the tremendous impact it has had on the company. How everyone has pulled together and demonstrated the great culture which makes the firm a good place to work. Their top ranking on Glassdoor proves it. There’s still language around opportunities and impact, but the focus is on the people at the firm who have pulled together and made a difficult experience special and with that message they stand out from the competition.

A major supermarket chain has an award-winning graduate programme. Their website shows a ‘year in the life’ detailing each week of a graduate’s experience and exactly what you’ll be doing – from the – perhaps – unexpected (stacking shelves) to the practical (working at the warehouse) to the corporate (meetings at HQ). They don’t gloss over the less glamorous aspects but embrace them, to show how their programme gives a rounded and honest view of how their business works.

TikTok may not be the first platform you think of when promoting your graduate recruitment programme, but as a platform that relies on distinctive, user-generated content, employers are now using it to target graduate audiences. With 60% of TikTok users Gen Z, it’s where your audiences are. Companies use it to show a more informal side with films such as insider office tours or employee-generated promotion for graduate schemes. The Washington Post does it particularly well, with their TikTok presenter becoming so successful he now has his own account. With fun content, using TikTok makes the newspaper come across as distinctive and relevant, and has increased the visibility and reach of their graduate schemes with tens of thousands of likes for each film.

2. Be visible

75% of Gen Z use mobiles over other devices

This isn’t just about being seen. It’s about being seen in the right places. 75% of Gen Z use mobiles over other devices and 60% leave a website if it doesn’t load quickly. So first, ensure you have a graduate website that works smoothly and quickly, with an intuitive user journey. Simple, long scroll pages, where information can be found easily in one place, are often most successful. Make sure your labelling is clear, use bold iconography for smart signposting and include a mix of media. This audience engages particularly well with short, snappy films. The supermarket chain we talked about earlier, for example, includes one giving a light-hearted look at how to interview well over Zoom – it shows they’ve given thought to some of the issues facing current candidates and provides insight into the relaxed company culture. Most importantly, ensure your site is optimised for mobile.

Social media is certainly a place to be seen. But it’s important to remember that Gen Z use different platforms for different purposes and understanding this is key to communicating with them in the most effective way. Facebook is where Gen Z go for information. The best feeds have a broad mix of user-generated content from current trainees, alongside more formal corporate communications detailing latest company news, as well as information on latest initiatives around things like D&I. There’s information on how to contact the company directly (make it personal by providing emails of actual people, rather than simply an info@ email), alongside a map for getting to that all-important interview. Several of the really good ones activate the chat function so you can speak to someone directly with queries. Put together, you get a sense of the company’s culture, purpose and people.

Instagram is more about lifestyle and during the pandemic some companies took the opportunity to show the honest and real side of working from home, which was also a good way to show the diversity of their people. One major telecoms operator creates Stories by audience – graduates, apprentices etc. which shows they’ve thought hard about the considerations for each group. Snapchat, while relatively new to the graduate recruitment promotional mix is now being used to target specific audiences and places. A leading global bank created an award-winning graduate recruitment campaign using Snapchat’s geofilters which meant only those in a particular place at a particular time could see and share content. This campaign, one of the first of its kind, went viral and had real impact, giving the bank visibility with audiences that it would never have had through more traditional channels.

75% of Gen Z use mobiles over other devices

3. Be inclusive

Around 48% of the generation now coming into the workplace identify as racially or ethnically diverse. Showing diversity in your recruitment materials is key to attracting talent. One FMCG company does a great job on this, with a series of 1-minute, quick-fire films introducing graduate programme employees. Each employee is asked a series of ‘either or’ questions – not always related to work – such as “Vanilla or chocolate?”, “Phone or email?”, “Reuse or recycle?” and so on. The films are clever because not only do they succeed in showing the diversity of people who work at the company but they also suggest inclusion – that everyone, no matter how they think, what they value or what they like can have their place. The films were shot on the hoof, with people interviewed wherever they happened to be in the office, so they feel informal, relaxed and authentic and you get a good idea of both the work environment and the easy-going culture. Really simple, but incredibly effective.

Social mobility is a perhaps a side of D&I that’s still in a more embryonic stage in terms of how companies approach it. With D&I in general it’s crucial to show you’re walking the walk as well as talking the talk. We worked last year with a leading law firm who demonstrate their stance on social mobility with a scholarship scheme they’ve set up in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Trust, getting more young black men from low income households into top City legal firms. The scheme has made a real difference and the website includes the stories of current scholarship holders. The firm also partners with several well-known social mobility organisations. The same firm has a reverse mentoring scheme where junior colleagues who identify as belonging to underrepresented groups are paired with senior colleagues to mentor them, bringing to the fore issues of mobility and inclusivity, as well as providing education around the issue.

Yet you don’t necessarily need large-scale programmes to make a difference. We noticed a great job advert from The Spectator, who were recruiting for a Social Media Manager. They stressed their no-CV policy – you don’t submit your CV when applying as they’re not interested in where you went to university or your grades. Recent research from McKinsey confirms that more companies are starting to think like this, recruiting more for skills and thought processes. And those companies are reaping the benefits with greater creativity and innovation from their workforce. The Spectator’s initial application process is simple – submit your answers to three questions from a selection, such as “Tell us 3 things we’re missing”, “Which publication’s social media strategy do you think we can learn from the most?”. The questions aim to get candidates to think outside the box, finding those who can think a bit differently and bring something new, putting more emphasis on what they can do in practice. We think that can only be a positive thing in improving workplace inclusivity.

4. Be coherent

It can be tempting to create something very different in terms of look and feel, as well as language, for your graduate recruitment brand. We often see examples where there’s a complete disconnect between the graduate recruitment brand and the master brand. We would say that it’s really important to have coherence between the two. As a graduate, of course you’ll be looking at the recruitment brand, but you’ll also look at the overall brand as well. You want to know about the organisation you’ll be joining. When the two don’t match up it can be jarring but it may also prompt suspicion – why are the two so different? What is the company trying to hide? Having consistency, both visually and verbally across your communications, is vital. Ensure your messages are connected – they should be saying similar things, even if in different ways, and elements such as imagery should feel like they’re coming from the same overarching brand too.

We’ve touched on the importance of a good website and mobile optimisation. The experience online needs to be excellent as well with a coherent user journey. Ensure your site is clearly labelled so graduates can find what they need easily. Make sure that as pages flow from one to another they make sense, so the journey as a whole has clarity. The more seamless, the better. Your graduates should never feel they’ve been sent off to another website entirely. Their digital savviness will ensure they spot any disconnect immediately.

5. Be authentic

You don’t have to use only user-generated footage to be authentic

Authenticity should touch across everything. Never pretend to be something you’re not as this generation will see right through the façade. Many companies are realising the virtues of user-generated imagery and film to support their messages and to show their company in a more honest way. During the pandemic we all realised there was no place to hide – gone were the sleek offices and slick suits, and we were instead transported to people’s living rooms and bedrooms (occasionally with a pet or child in sight). Clever organisations embraced this realism and turned it to their advantage to show a side to their business that seemed more appropriate for this new context. We saw some excellent examples from the BBC, for example, who did away with their usual professionally-shot idents and replaced them with user-generated footage. It made the organisation come across as all the more relevant. One of the Big 4 consultancy firms also embraced user-generated imagery in its brand communications. Employees talked about their pandemic stories and home-working. The lack of consistency in photography style was intentional and made it more authentic. It reflected the world we were in. You don’t have to use only user-generated footage to be authentic, of course. A major technology company uses a really personal, reportage photography style, even though it’s professionally shot. The people in the images aren’t posing or models, they’re real employees which provides an authentic feel of what the people are like.

Authenticity should come through in messaging too. Genuine quotes from graduate programme participants and an honest approach to the language will support a more realistic overall impression. Be truthful – talk about the great things you offer, but don’t forget to mention that it may sometimes be challenging as well. Glassdoor is the graduate’s best friend and research shows they use it as a key tool for company research. If what they see there matches what they see on your website, they’ll be impressed. Companies that are often most successful at attracting great talent go further, using chat functions and Q&A sessions, either on their websites or via platforms such as Twitter, so potential graduate recruits can talk with current employees. Being able to interact in this way gives authenticity to your communications that can’t be gained through company-generated messaging and imagery alone, and graduates will thank you for it.

You don’t have to use only user-generated footage to be authentic

6. Be useful

This final section is about thinking from a graduate’s perspective. What would be useful for them? In our work for a leading law firm, we identified that it was difficult to decipher their student journey, as there were so many possibilities based on what you studied at university, what year you were in etc. You want your application process to be as clear as possible and so we developed an interactive journey planner that generated a personalised timetable for graduates. We made it downloadable so graduates could print it off with key dates etc. if they wished or save it on their phones or laptop.

Applying for the first step in your career should be fun and there are some great examples of companies using gaming to help make the process more enjoyable. A Big 4 consultancy firm presents a series of scenarios, and you click on one of several possible answers to say how you would deal with it. It then brings up a current graduate trainee who answered the same question with the same answer and you can click through to read their story, providing a series of case studies to help candidates get more of a feel for the company.

Think carefully about your content’s format. Printed brochures may still be useful for corporate sales teams, but for the environmentally-conscious Gen Z they’re a no-no. Consider making your brochure for mobile viewing instead, or at least in a laptop-friendly pdf format. Podcasts are also becoming increasingly popular. Some companies produce series specifically aimed at graduates, with news and views from across their organisation that might be of interest. While the last year has necessitated that much of our communication goes online, we’ve also seen impressive virtual career fairs, virtual internships and films that recreate graduate recruitment events for online viewing. We believe these might be here to stay, because it makes them accessible to a broader audience and for programmes like internships it helps to address certain issues of social mobility – for example, graduates no longer have to find the funds to live in London for several weeks if they can join online instead.

So, when considering graduate recruitment in the new context, there are six things to focus on. Be distinctive with how you frame your offer, be visible in the right places and always be inclusive. Be coherent by ensuring visual and verbal graduate recruitment messages match those of your employer and corporate brand. Be authentic – honesty and realism is valued – and, finally, be useful and think about what your graduates really want and need. Consider these, and we believe your graduate recruitment will attract the best and most interesting talent.


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