Why you need to be hiring university talent – Guest Blog

Author, Eddie Stewart, Owner, ES Talent Solutions

As a corporate recruiting leader, I spent several years overseeing early talent recruiting programs for a large, global Fortune 500 company. With almost 3,000 annual intern, Co-op, undergraduate, and graduate hires, this was quite an undertaking. As I tried to understand our organization and how early talent hires could assist the company in reaching its business goals, something stood out. Some departments hired hundreds of university students while others hired none. I set out to understand the rationale behind those decisions.

There are many types of students hired by companies, temporary (interns, co-op, etc.) to permanent hires (undergraduate, postgraduate, etc.). Certainly, a big part of the decision to hire “early talent” is that these hiring programs align with business goals. If successful university hiring programs do not assist the company in reaching its business goals, they should be discontinued. Given there is this alignment, University hiring programs are a must-have for companies both big and small. If this is true, why do some groups choose not to hire this talent?

Are there some functions better suited for early talent hires or have some groups figured out the mysteries of hiring early talent while others have not? I was surprised that this activity was somewhat polarizing. Some managers were certain early talent would not fit into their organizations and others couldn’t live without them.   Before I share why companies should absolutely hire early talent, let’s look at reasons why managers do not hire from this group. 

The Case Against

In all my journeys across multiple companies, departments, and geographies, almost all the pushback against hiring university talent came down to one of two reasons: “It costs too much” and “We need experience.”  Let’s address both.

Hiring college students is expensive

If you have ever been exposed to hiring early talent at a large organization, you know the budgets can be incredible. This is millions, not thousands of dollars, involving teams of people presenting at campuses, interviewing, developing relationships with “core” schools, intern programming, mentors, and on and on. To spend millions of dollars does make the statement that you are “all in,” but how many companies can afford this? If cost is not the barrier – if companies could participate in some way without large costs — would they start hiring from this source?  

Hiring college students kills production

I get it. Work must get done and headcount numbers are limited. Everyone needs someone to “hit the ground running” and no one has time to train/mentor. Previous experience using machines, software, systems, etc. is why we hire people in the first place, so how can you hire people without any experience???? 

The Case For

Two critical points work against the experience argument. One, all investments do not have short-term rewards. Two, the misconception that “hit the ground running” is the most important skill a potential employee can possess. Let me address both.

Think of these two scenarios. Let’s say you have a manufacturing group looking for a controls engineer.  You have the choice of hiring a new university graduate who has course training in the software you use as well as an internship with the same experience. Or you can hire an employee who has 5 years of experience with the same software at another company. No brainer – 5 years is better than internship experience. But let’s dive deeper.  Through interviews (oh, and, by the way, the internship was with your company so you have 3 months of on-the-job assessment knowledge), you have determined that the university hire would also bring:

  • A “get the job done” mentality
  • Creative thinking/new idea generation
  • Reliability
  • Strong problem-solving skills
  • Team-oriented approach
  • Conflict resolution skills
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Willingness to learn and ask questions

And through the few 45-minute interviews with your team, you have had a hard time detecting any of these skills from the person with 5 years of experience.  Would this at least make the decision tougher than originally thought? Would it be worth all this value to invest in a mentor and training to inject your department with some diversity of thought and new “first job” energy?

If the argument becomes investment-related rather than cost-focused, the view changes. A large healthcare company had several early talent programs, one being a leadership development program. LDPs are popular with companies that have early talent hiring programs. The interesting thing about this company is that their LDP was over 30 years in the making. There wasn’t a lot of business case happening around the value of the program because former LDP participants were now working at every level of the organization.  They had become the leaders making the decisions to continue investment in the LDP programs! Consider this – hire one university student every year. In eight years, one of your hires has 8 years of experience (simple math ?). You then have the more experienced workers mentoring the newcomers. Most are excited about doing this to give back/pay if forward in appreciation of when they were new. Others are excited to mold these employees. With this model, there are no old tricks to “unlearn” before the training can begin. And it goes both ways. The newcomers bring energy, innovative ideas, and exposure to new generations of talent.  So, a 5-year LDP investment provides an employee with the same 5 years of experience as our “experienced” candidate above as well as all the qualities we hired for or developed. That’s a good hire!

Tying it all together

Addressing the cost issue I mentioned above, I have a fail-proof way to succeed – spend less! University hiring programs can be expensive and it’s never easy carving out a new budget when one doesn’t currently exist.  So, start small and build a business case to grow the program. I worked with a company to do this very thing.  In year one, they hired four interns at a total cost of less than $35KThese costs came out of department budgets, each investing less than $10K. The projects interns worked on were well-defined and presented in a corporate-wide presentation at the end of their assignments. In year two, the departments tripled their investments and conversations started around other types of university hires. Why? Value. The work they accomplished was worth more than the cost. And they really can accomplish wonderful things.

I witnessed this firsthand in my university recruiting leader role. One of my employees approached me with an interesting question. “Why doesn’t our team ever hire university talent?”  I didn’t have an answer, but it made sense that, if we’re promoting these hires around the company, we should lead by example and hire them ourselves.  We decided to hire our first co-op student and assigned her some project work. One of these projects focused on candidate experience. After a few weeks, I was presented with a business case to address several issues including better connecting interns, co-ops, and new university full-time hires to each other. It turns out there were locations with several early talent hires, and none had any idea of the others at the same site. The solution? My co-op created a program that provided information about every site (dress code, community information, cafeteria, etc.) access to other university hires at each location. Students would have access as soon as they accepted their position so they would have several weeks to make bonds with others before day one on the job. Side Note – It turns out our co-op’s concept was before its time!  Gradleaders has an excellent product, Intern Management System, to efficiently structure, manage and measure internship and all other types of talent programs.

Headcount numbers can be an obstacle to hiring less experienced employees as well (there’s a reason I hired the co-op rather than a permanent employee!).  Again, the solution can be to start small and build. Many companies hire co-ops to get things done without adding headcount. One company I work with has arranged for furnished apartments near the facility. They hire two engineering co-ops, give them reduced rent and, when their assignments end, they bring in two more for the next six-month stint. For a relatively small investment, they have added two more headcount to the team. And they have created a pool of people (who have shown their skills/work habits over a six-month period) they can offer employment to when permanent roles open.

For those looking to build early talent programs and running across the obstacles above, hopefully you have received a new incentive to continue your drive to add this group of hires. There will be challenges (not all university hires are great, but not all experienced hires are either) however, keeping with a long-term investment mindset, your company will be better off down the road hiring future leaders and developing them in-house. And the energy and creativity contributed by this talent will be visible at all levels of the organization.

Eddie Stewart (https://www.linkedin.com/in/eddie-stewart) has over 20 years of recruiting experience, working in both large and small corporate environments. He currently owns and operates ES Talent Solutions, a consulting firm focused on strategic recruiting consulting. Need help enhancing/building early talent programs or want an outside view of the health of your recruiting function? Contact Eddie (estewart@ESTalentSolutions.com) for a free consultation to learn more about corporate recruiting assessments and how they may improve your organization.

Headshot of Eddie Stewart of ES Talent Solutions
Eddie Stewart, Owner, ES Talent Solutions