College Recruiting in a Downturn

In a faltering economy, campus recruiting takes a hit, but top candidates are still in demand.

By Donna M. Owens Apr 1, 2009

April 2009 CoverDavid Lai, a senior at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, has an impressive resume. The biology and sociology major has taken part in public health research, is active on campus with intramural sports and student campaigns, and serves at his church.

Yet 21-year-old Lai, slated to graduate in May, still wonders how the economic downturn will affect his employment prospects.

“The current economy worries me,” he admits. “But since I have never worked full time, it is hard for me to understand the full implications of such a crisis. This is my first exposure to finding a job on the market, and I don’t really have any other base line to compare to.”

For the class of 2009, the down economy will mean fewer opportunities for college graduates when it comes to landing jobs, say HR professionals and other experts. According to a job outlook poll conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 52 percent of 140 employers polled in October said they were going to decrease their earlier hiring projections for 2009 college graduates. Only government as a sector reported an increase in hiring expectations, while manufacturing and professional services remained flat.

“Recruiting efforts have shifted, and in some ways are shrinking,” says Kenneth Ackerman, PHR, a senior human resources business partner at Lockheed Martin, the Maryland-based aeronautics contractor.

Furthermore, a NACE salary survey released in January suggests that average starting salary offers will level off, too. 

Last year at this time, the average starting salary for all bachelor’s degree graduates was $49,300—a 4 percent increase from 2007. Currently, the overall average salary offer made to all bachelor’s degree graduates is $49,353—nearly identical to the 2008 average.

Ackerman’s assessment of job prospects for new college graduates is echoed by career placement professionals on campuses nationwide.

A New World

Steve Schroeder, undergraduate program director of the Business Career Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business, says the economy has employers and students thinking differently about their recruitment strategies.

Students are “expanding their job search strategies to be much more inclusive,” he says, and considering options within and outside of their majors and industries of interest.

“We may have yet to see the worst of this economic situation,” adds Schroeder. “This fact, coupled with a surplus of qualified, experienced job candidates on the market will make the scene a bit more difficult for students who graduate.”

Employers are scheduling fewer on-site interviews, doing more online interviewing and making offers more strategically.

The impact is already being felt.

As the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), which has 31,000 student members, prepared to hold its annual convention in Las Vegas in March, about 30 percent to 40 percent of the organization’s corporate supporters that planned to attend indicated they would not be recruiting. “They will keep their faces and brands there, but they won’t be hiring,” says NSBE’s executive director Carl Mack. And, he adds, “some companies that had 20 booths [in the past] are down to five or six.”

One of Schroeder’s colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Archambault, interim director of Engineering Career Services, says there are already indications that students aren’t getting their first choices or perfect offers, even in hard-to-fill sectors.

“Typically, engineering students have been receiving three to four offers, and that is still the case for top graduates,” Archambault explains. “Those who don’t have the top qualifications are likely to only receive one offer.”

But Archambault says trends such as the “graying” of the engineering workforce, combined with a shortage of engineers, will make the field among the first to rebound. And he predicts that competition for graduates in specific disciplines, or among candidates who can add diversity to a workforce, will continue.

Employers recommend that students use every available resource to conduct a thorough job search, starting with their campus career centers. Most centers offer counseling; resume writing; interviewing skill development; job search workshops; and programs, such as career fairs, on-campus interviews and job postings, to help students connect with potential employers.

Grading Talent

Despite the stall in recruitment, some employers are finding the glut of job seekers is providing them with a bumper crop of high-quality candidates. While the criteria may vary by industry, HR professionals say employers consistently seek certain attributes in collegiate hires.

These include having the requisite major, coursework and grade-point average (GPA). Nearly 70 percent of employers who responded to NACE’s 2009 Job Outlook survey screen candidates by GPA; for most, the cutoff is 3.0, or a B average.

Other qualities that employers prize include communication skills, work ethic, teamwork and initiative—traits that will help a new hire succeed and contribute to an organization.

Employers also value leadership. Asked to compare two otherwise equally qualified candidates in the NACE survey, employers chose the individual who had held a leadership position over a candidate who simply was involved in extracurricular activities.

Something else employers emphasize: work experience.

“More than three-quarters of employers told us they prefer to hire candidates with relevant work experience,” such as internships or cooperative education assignments, says NACE Executive Director Marilyn Mackes.

The NACE survey shows that nearly 20 percent of employers look for any type of work experience—relevant or otherwise. Less than 3 percent said they don’t factor in work experience when deciding to hire a college graduate.

In fact, “Our studies show that in a poor economy, when employers do have jobs, they often look first to their own interns and co-op students,” says Mackes.

That’s something Jeffrey Chan, a senior at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, recently discovered, with positive results. The 23-year-old conducts the campus orchestra, is active in a school leadership program and plays competitive tennis. He works for the Walt Disney Co. as a college recruiting representative.

“It’s a seasonal gig that I have every semester where I represent [the company] on Milwaukee area college campuses. I typically go to career fairs and give presentations about the company and how to get involved with the Disney College Program,” he explains.

Despite his busy schedule, Chan found time to do an internship with a consulting engineering firm, one that’s led to a full-time position. Yet despite Chan’s success in finding a job, even he is not entirely confident, noting, “The current state of the economy does have its uncertainties. My biggest fear is losing my job at a company I enjoy working for.”

Ackerman, the Lockheed Martin HR professional, recommends that students who are short on experience consider taking a paid or unpaid internship. “There’s heavy competition,” advises Ackerman. “For most organizations, the most important piece is to get a foot in the door.”

He cites as an example an intern who worked in an information technology role within Lockheed Martin’s process solutions group. “He performed many tasks and did them well. He proved he could work well in this environment. So, he has been invited back.”

Campus career counselors also say that involvement in initiatives such as mentor programs are another way that prospective hires are seeking to gain a competitive edge in a depressed job market.

Lisa Schwoob, a computer information systems major at Metropolitan State College of Denver, is a protégé of MentorNet, a nonprofit organization that matches women and underrepresented minorities in engineering and science fields with mentors from the industry. The organization assists some 3,000 students on about 115 campuses worldwide.

“My plans after graduation are to find a job in the information technology field,” says Schwoob, a “nontraditional” student in her 40s who has a full-time government job and expects to graduate in the fall of 2010. “The economy does worry me,” Schwoob says. But having a mentor, she adds, has provided her with support and expanded networking opportunities.

“My mentor has been very helpful to me—most of the time by talking about job options and what would be best for me, and also about what a day in his job is like,” says Schwoob.

MentorNet President David Porush, Ph.D., says more than half of the organization’s protégés end up being hired by their mentors’ companies.

Lai, the University of Michigan senior, also credits his mentor with helping him improve his resume and sharpen his job-searching techniques.

Off-Campus Recruitment

Tighter budgets are also prompting many employers to take advantage of recruitment opportunities available in the broader community.

Stacie Price, president of the Greater Baltimore Leadership Association, the young professional auxiliary of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, says the chapter recently hosted a career night for its 115 members, including recent college graduates.

“We invited a panel of HR professionals who critiqued resumes and answered various questions about how to get a leg up in a challenging job market,” says Price. “We had a great response.”

Pennye James, a human resource supervisor for United Parcel Service (UPS) for the Washington, D.C., metro area, was one of the panelists. James says students should not assume that they don’t have the skills employers want or need.

“We have not stopped or limited recruiting despite the economy,” James says. The company visits dozens of campuses annually and does traditional recruiting as well as nontraditional recruiting—such as e-mail blasts—to attract the most talented workforce, James says.

“At UPS, we’re known for promoting from within, so, as a company, we have a need for entry-level employees,” she says.

Meanwhile, some college students are developing contingency plans in case their job search doesn’t pan out.

Schwoob will consider graduate school if an offer in information technology isn’t forthcoming, as she doesn’t want to lose her skill set.

But Lai really wants a full-time position—and plans to keep looking in his field. “I am more relieved because I am looking for jobs in the health care market, which actually grew in 2009. I am hoping that as I broaden my scope in what I am looking for, that an opportunity will open.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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