Capitalizing on College Ties

Alumni-assisted recruiting can give your company an advantage in branding and information.

By Steve Taylor Dec 1, 2009

December CoverIn college, Keisha Jackson was a standout on the fencing team at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. She was a standout engineering student, too, and upon graduation was hired by Hamilton Sundstrand in Windsor Locks, Conn. Less than a year later, she approached Robert Thoelen, manager of engineering development and staffing at the aerospace and industrial products manufacturer. Jackson told Thoelen he should recruit Kendred Wilson, another Stevens fencer about to receive an engineering degree.

"Keisha made it clear that Kendred would be an excellent fit," Thoelen recalls. Interviews, an offer and an acceptance followed. Now, "Kendred has developed into an outstanding employee."

Thoelen expresses gratitude but no surprise about Jackson’s networking. She, too, had been recruited by a Stevens alumnus: Thoelen.

College alumni networks are crucial contributors to the flow of talent into many workplaces. And, many networks are informal groups that evolve on their own.

Building Connections

Lee Whitney, an information systems architect for Northrop Grumman in Fairfax, Va., says informal networks begin when "two people at work, discovering they went to the same school, become friends. Then one says, ‘Hey, I know of a guy who needs a job.’ "

Alternatively, an alumnus may learn of an opening and think of his alma mater. "It just happens," says Kendra Nelsen of the career services office at the University of Virginia (U.Va.). "The alum goes back to a faculty member he’s connected to and asks about talented students."

"I was recruited from U.Va. by Capital One 10 years ago," says Steve O’Neill, senior business director, operations, for the bank holding company in Richmond, Va. "I still maintain relationships with my colleagues who recruited me … as well as with the newer graduates I helped to recruit."

Whitney, who also graduated from U.Va., says companies target schools where they have histories of getting good people.

Alums often consult with university career centers to formalize their recruiting.

Ken Henriquez, chief operating officer of Information Enterprise Services at Deutsche Bank AG New York, advises, "That initial contact goes further when an alumnus is placing the phone call. … Making a deal is always easier when there’s that personal connection."

As a graduate of Stevens Institute, Henriquez works with Lynn Insley, the school’s director of career development. "I send a job spec to Lynn and say, ‘I need names in 24 hours,’ and I come in the next morning and I find 15 resumes in my e-mail, students that fit the skill set we’re looking for."

This is especially useful when seeking students who aren’t focusing on that particular company. There are some students "who wouldn’t consider working for a utility company, [such as] accounting and business majors," observes Demetrius Carter, SPHR, supervisor of staffing strategy at Dominion Resources in Richmond, Va. "They’re thinking [of] Wall Street. Using alumni helps us to become more attractive."

Boston Consulting Group markets advice on business strategy to companies in 38 countries. Its alumni of targeted universities find prospective employees. "It takes work on our part to reach them, because undergraduate students aren’t thinking about consulting," says Kelly Thorne, recruiting manager for the company’s Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia offices.

Universities organize events such as career fairs or interviews where alumni can meet with prospective employees, sponsor certain programs and services, establish relationships with student groups, or make their branding stronger, says Barbara Hampton of U.Va.’s career services office.

Many companies enlist younger alumni to conduct face-to-face sessions, says Hampton. "They’re usually excited to help students with career development."

Stevens’ Insley adds, "Students who are graduating feel really comfortable talking with young alumni."

Expanding Exposure

Brand building sometimes includes activities not immediately related to recruiting, as organizations use alumni networks to forge relationships with students who are far from graduation.

Earlier this year, 20 Stevens Institute freshmen and sophomores toured Deutsche Bank’s Wall Street trading operation and were ferried across the Hudson River to see its tech center in Jersey City, N.J. Alumni took control of the visit.

"We put spin on it," says Henriquez. "A traditional externship program … is to see a day in the life of somebody. That could be a boring day, not that exciting. We wanted to show them as many roles as we could."

The approach was devised to create awareness among students and to help them establish relationships before they apply for jobs or even internships. "We meet them two or three years before graduation," explains Henriquez.

Dominion Resources also seeks early contact. The company is one of four sponsors—along with Rolls Royce, Dell and General Mills—of a third-year undergraduate program at U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce. Students work in teams to solve actual business problems.

"We’re big believers in having companies in the classroom," says Allison Teweles, director of corporate and foundation relations for the McIntire School. "So many students can tell you who those four sponsors are."

Tom Bean, Dominion’s vice president of financial analysis, alternative energy solutions, and an alumnus of the McIntire School, says the program yields valuable customer research with the viewpoint of younger folks. The sponsorship costs Dominion $25,000 a year.

"Anytime we go back to campus, we connect with our past interns," says Dominion Resources’ Carter. "We tell them when we’re coming. We buy the pizza and tell them, ‘Bring a friend.’ " He figures the pepperoni and cheese may cost $150 to $200 but compares that to "$4,000 for an ad in the campus paper [or] $800 for a table at a banquet."

Hiring Graduated Alumni

Many universities also help recruiters looking for potential employees who have already graduated and begun their careers. For a recruiter targeting people educated at specific schools, alumni organizations can be valuable.

For example, U.Va. and other schools maintain job boards where companies can post listings. "If an employer is looking to hire U.Va. alumni, they come through us," explains Carter Hopkins, who directs the career center at the University of Virginia Alumni Association.

Alumni also provide contacts. Teweles says many companies "have an alumni team back at the office."

Thoelen of Hamilton Sundstrand circulates candidates’ resumes among recent alumni of the same schools. "I say, ‘If you have recommendations of people who’d be a good fit, let me know.’ Then I usually run with those recommendations" when scheduling interviews.

Whitney of Northrop Grumman adds, "If they said someone had potential, that gives the company confidence" in the choices.

Cost Benefits

Carter says Dominion Resources’ alumni-assisted recruiting is cost-effective. In addition to classroom programs and intern reunions, the company sends personnel to campuses to conduct resume evaluation sessions for students.

Deutsche Bank’s Henriquez agrees: "Your best people always seem to come through recommendations."

But, "You can overdo it," warns Carter. How often alumni teams visit campuses "depends on the talent need. You don’t want be there too often, and you certainly don’t want to be misleading about available opportunities."

Bad economic times may dictate an organization’s approach. "Companies say they have reduced the list of schools at which they are recruiting," reports Hampton. She says that, in the recession, some schools have sent fewer alumni recruiters or have sent them less often. "They’re doing more combination trips" that include other business with the university.

Many companies find that the benefits of alumni-assisted recruiting make it well worth the effort. Bean points to one of his successes, "probably the best recruit of a new employee we’ve had."

Engaging alumni can effectively extend HR’s reach, says Thoelen. "Part of the reason people like me are involved is that there are only so many people in HR to go around."


The author is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Web Extras

SHRM article: Job Fairs Focus on Alumni (SHRM Online Staffing Management Discipline)

SHRM article: Reverse Job Fairs (Staffing Management magazine)

SHRM article: Do Your Hiring Homework (Staffing Management magazine)


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