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Recruiting College Students Now Means Building Relationships

Published Friday Sep 1, 2023

Author Dave Solomon


Nursing Simulation and Clinical Education Center at Rivier University. (Courtesy of Rivier University)

While such events still exist, they are no longer the primary vehicle for businesses on the hunt for the best and the brightest, especially when demand for talent is at an all-time high.

“Recruitment has completely changed,” says Kristin Brooks, assistant director of career services at Keene State College. “This is a new generation of recruitment especially as we come out of COVID with our students. We need to meet them where they are at, and where they are at is unlike any other time in recruitment history.”

Recruitment in today’s hot job market has become a year-round affair, starting early in a student’s academic career, as prospective employers work to build relationships over time.

Narrowing the Focus
The large-scale job fairs have, for the most part, been replaced with smaller, niche events focused on specific sectors, like health care or nonprofits.

And while students and employers rely on digital platforms like Handshake to connect and foster relationships, the demand for face-to-face contact is driving most of the recruiting activity.

During the pandemic, schools had little choice but to move recruitment into a virtual space. “We did some focus groups when the students returned to campus after the pandemic to get a better understanding of how they want to interact with recruiters, and they said their preference overall was an in-person experience,” says JoAnna Luiso, director of career services at Southern NH University (SNHU) in Manchester. “While there was that level of comfort with personal experience, they did not want a large-scale environment, but wanted something more personal and niche.”

Like other schools, SNHU started to run industry nights, smaller events geared toward specific industries where students could navigate a smaller space, “knowing all these companies are here for me because I’m interested in this industry,” Luiso says.

Keene State still has a large career fair twice a year to bring employers from across the nation to recruit students, but boutique style fairs with 10 to 20 employers specific to certain industries are now  gaining traction amongst students
and employers.

“It’s not just seniors coming,” says Brooks. “Our first-year students and second-year students are coming to have conversations with employers. It’s a student’s market, and we’re using that to their advantage. A lot of our students are seeing job offers prior to graduation.”

Meeting at the Table
St. Anselm College in Manchester has done away with the all-purpose career fair entirely. “We don’t do a general career fair on campus anymore, as we did pre-COVID,” says Stefan Koppi, executive director of career development.

Instead, the school has created a system for prospective employers to set up individual tables in common areas like the dining hall or student center at various points throughout the year, in a practice called “tabling.”

“We’ve had good feedback from those employers because the conversations are spontaneous, more informal, more relaxed,” says Koppi. “The employers just sign up on our website for the available space; we send them the information and confirmation.”

Another new approach for the coming academic year is the reverse career fair. “For arts, media and marketing, we might do a reverse career fair,” says Koppi, “where students are at the tables and the employers rotate around. This puts a different spin on it.” 

It also helps students highlight the soft skills that are so much in demand these days, like an engaging personality, good conversational style and high level of comfort in group interaction. 

There will also be an industry-based networking night, held in the fall. 

Job Fairs still Draw a Crowd
At Dartmouth College in Hanover, a traditional job fair in fall 2022 attracted more than 1,000 students. “It was the first live event we had post-COVID, and the students came out in throngs,” says Monica Wilson, director of Dartmouth’s Center for Professional Development. 

The most recent job fairs at the University of NH in Durham attracted more than 1,300 students, according to Raina Sprague, director of employer relations at the UNH Office of Career and Professional Success. While the traditional job fair is still a strong draw, it’s now only one of many alternatives.

“Employers are being more creative in the events they hold,” says Wilson. “We’ve had one-on-one coffee chats, group information sessions and interactive events, which students find more engaging, like interview simulations or networking practice.”

Sister Paula Marie Buley, president of Rivier University in Nashua, describes recruitment on her campus as “exceptionally robust,” especially in the nursing program and other health-related fields. “Health care is incredibly competitive,” she says. “Our students are being recruited before they graduate. In areas like business and biology, we find this region very actively recruiting.”

That aggressive level of recruiting, at least for now, has changed the job search for college graduates from a process that heavily favored employers to more of a two-way street. “It’s not just transactional, as it used to be,” says Jessica Dutille, director of student life and community impact at Plymouth State University. “Recruiting is much more ongoing and focused on relationship development.”

Recruiters in Residence
UNH promotes that relationship development by allowing some employers to take up residence on campus for weeks, months or even permanently, as is the case with ALKU, a recruiting and staffing agency with a focus on health care information technology, life sciences and government programs.

“Based on all of our engagement over several years and on their success in hiring here, they actually opened up an office here in Durham to host about 30 students each semester and pipeline them into positions with the company,” says Sprague.

The university has found one of the best ways to connect students with employers is to have them work with employers through university-run entities like the John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center, the UNH Interoperability Lab and the UNH Center for Business Analytics.

“You have to start building relationships with students early,” says Brooks at Keene State College “That’s how you create a pipeline. If you wait to recruit students in their senior year of college, guess what, they already have a plan. They’ve already been scooped up.”

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