How is Covid-19 changing student attraction?

This blog originally appeared on the ISE blog on the 10th June 2020.

Picture the scene. A group of eager students walk through the doorway to a concern hall, exhibition centre or sports stadium. Ahead of them they see employers stretched as far as they eye can see, all offering an array of wonderful gonks and gizmos and desperate to recruit them. 

The students make a beeline for the employers that they have been carefully researching in the weeks before, engage in deep and meaningful conversations about the company and their career, before connecting with a recruiter to begin the process of applying for the job of their dreams. 

Since March this scene has been nothing more than a recruiter’s pipe dream. Large groups of students cannot gather, the sports halls are closed and the gonks and gizmos are now dangerous vectors of disease. Our research tells us that only 2% of employers have been able to go ahead with face-to-face events of this kind since March. 

But, slowly and surely we are seeing lockdown easing. So, what approaches to student attraction can we expect to see from employers next year? Will it be back to the sports halls, pop up stands and the alluring array of gonks, or will the Covid-19 crisis signal the beginning of a new era in recruitment.

Plans for the autumn

In our recent survey we asked employers to look forwards and indicate how they planned to manage an array of typically face-to-face recruitment activities in autumn 2020 as they begin their new campaign. At the end of April/start of May a lot of employers were still thinking this through. 

The key reason for uncertainty is a lack of clarity about when lockdown would end and what the post-lockdown settlement would look like. Importantly with universities and other education providers still unclear about how open they will be, it is very difficult for employers to plan their attraction campaigns. Nonetheless, a pattern is beginning to emerge. The figure below shows how those employers who have made a decision are planning to organise a range of activities that they would have formerly delivered face-to-face. 

This suggests that employers are anticipating a substantial move to online provision in their attraction strategies. The only areas where more than 50% of respondents engaged with that activity are continuing with just face-to-face provision are business games and enterprise competitions and work experience. These are joined by careers fairs and assessment centres if both the face-to-face and combined categories are counted. For all other activities more than 50% of respondents who are planning to deliver that activity will do so online.

But this raises a new set of questions. If the crisis has prompted employers to switch to more online forms of student recruitment and attraction, and if this switch looks set to be continued through the 2020/2021 season, will it become permanent? And is this ultimately a bad thing?

Future gazing

At the present time it would be a very brave person who claimed to know how the future was going to go. A second spike of coronavirus could prolong the lockdown or conversely a vaccination could emerge more quickly than anticipated. And that is saying nothing of the progress of a likely recession, political changes including Brexit and the American election as well as the normal uncertainty of technological and environmental change. 

Nonetheless, employers participating in our study suggested that they might not be about to switch back to the old way of attracting students as soon as the pandemic recedes. As one told us ‘the virtual methods we have introduced’ are ‘proving popular and becoming the new norm to reach more students outside of our usual areas.’ 

Employers are currently investing in new technology and new supplier relationships to allow them to manage online and remote student attraction. Next year will serve as a test case for a lot of employers. If things go well there may not be much incentive to switch back to old face-to-face approaches, particularly in the light of increased pressure on recruitment budgets. 

Is the new normal a problem?

If I’m right and the changes wrought by the pandemic mark a permanent shift in employers approach to student attraction does it matter? Will anyone mourn the passing of the careers fair and the campus employer talk?

On one hand the changes that I’m describing play into pre-existing critiques of campus-based recruitment approaches. Lots of employers have expressed doubts about the activity that they do on campus. Choosing one institution to focus on raises issues with diversity and fairness, travelling and producing collateral raises environmental issues and, perhaps most importantly, a lot of employers have concerns about whether their participation in face-to-face events is really generating many applications. Perhaps Covid-19 will teach us that this kind of boots on the ground recruitment is not necessary any more. 

On the other hand, there is something to be said for building deep relationships with educational providers and in looking students in the eye to help to engage them. While some big brands might be able to leapfrog over intensive engagement with students, for many firms these conversations are where students learn that their firm exists and find out about what they are looking for. 

While it is possible to imagine that online provision evens up access to employers, it is also reasonable to conclude that it will close it down and make it more difficult for students with limited cultural capital to find out what is out there.

So where next?

Next year looks set to be a critical year for the future of student attraction. The old normal is going to be very difficult and so we can expect to see a range of different experiments with new approaches. 

It is not clear what will emerge, but it is difficult not to conclude that, whatever it is, it will be more digital than the world of 2019. Given this it is important that employers continue to stay focused on ensuring fairness, diversity and valid assessments as they evolve their recruitment approach for the new normal. 

More insight to how employers are changing student recruitment and attraction due to Covid-19 can be found in ISE’s latest research Covid-19: The impact of the crisis on student recruitment and development.

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