Power shift

Employers now have the upper hand when recruiting on campus

“It was absolutely insane.”

That’s John Stockwell’s take of the student employment market during the high-tech boom in the late 1990s. A campus recruitment specialist now working for RBC Financial Group, he remembers interviewing students with four or five job offers, each worth more than the last, and offering elaborate packages to young, inexperienced candidates.

“Four years ago, the job boom was on and it was definitely a candidate’s market, so candidates were able to choose where they wanted to work, what kind of things they wanted to be doing and how much money they wanted to make. Really, they had an incredible amount of say in what their overall employment package looked like,” said Stockwell.

He is not alone in this assessment. For most student recruiters, the boom years of just three years ago stand in marked contrast to the current labour market where employers have gained the upper hand in the hiring process.

“There is a very significant difference between then and now, particularly in the high-tech and dot-com areas,” said Warren Eberlin of Lucent Technologies, a communications network firm based in Markham, Ont. “We saw very fierce competition… (during that period) students would have three to four offers by October.”

That fierce competition for candidates resulted in offers of personal computers, prizes and vacations as hiring bonuses — something that certainly doesn’t exist now, said Eberlin.

Brad Salavich, a campus recruiter for IBM, remembers hearing about offers of free cars for students applying to certain positions.

“A lot of people had a lot of venture capital to pay significantly to find talent,” said Salavich. “There was an incredible talent war on. People who were looking for those jobs and had the skills were seeing inflated salary offers and a lot of incentives to get them to sign on with companies that may or may not have had a previous reputation.”

The hiring spree began to collapse in 2001, according to Eberlin.

“It occurred over a period of six months and would have impacted one particular class. The year before them would have been receiving these extraordinary offers, and the very next class wouldn’t have received them,” he said.

Since then Eberlin’s seen a drastic change in the student recruitment market.

“People who have three to eight years’ experience are going back to university for another degree and using sourcing techniques such as job fairs to scope out employers. It’s ironic — it’s the reverse of what was happening two or three years ago.”

In Eberlin’s view, this has caused a major change in student recruitment techniques. He said companies are re-examining strategic investment plans in an attempt to develop long-range recruitment strategies that focus on students of all years — with a particular emphasis on co-op programs — rather than just the graduating class.

“They are really targetting the specific areas where they want to spend their limited resources — time and money — and building a pipeline of people, not just grabbing the person at the top of the graduating class. From a strategic perspective things are in much better shape than they were before.”

Salavich said the current labour market is a return to, “a more realistic, steady state.” In contrast to recruitment methods during the boom years, he said the tighter employment market allows companies to be more selective when recruiting students. Graduates who would have commanded a large salary three years ago are expected to have some experiential learning, and need to spend a lot more time and effort in their job searches.

“Employers have the ability now to look for a broader skill set, so we need the technical skills, but we also need those softer skills,” said Salavich. “Communication, teamwork, the ability to set goals and be self-managed. We’re now able to spend more time finding people who not only have strong technical skills, but who have a host of other skills they’ve developed.”

But the end of campus recruiting is nowhere in sight, said Stockwell. While the current labour situation will continue for an extended period, a large portion of the workforce will be retiring, creating major openings for graduates across all sectors. Recruiters need to take advantage of the current labour market before early retirement packages kick in and cause a return to the competitive hiring of the dot-com era.

Mark Laurie and Daryl Smith write for jobpostings, a student job magazine. They can be reached at (416) 932-8866, www.jobpostings.ca or [email protected].

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