Guest blog: Looking for the graduates who aren’t necessarily looking for you.

Contributed by Phil Woodford of Here Comes the Cavalry.

It’s probably a big mistake in a blog like this to reminisce about my own university days. Margaret Thatcher was in power and Bananarama were riding high in the charts when I first showed up at the LSE back in 1987. Today’s generation of students would be shocked to discover that not only was I lacking a Samsung Galaxy S5, but my only access to the outside world was via a phone at the end of the corridor in my hall of residence. And that phone, if I remember correctly, only received incoming calls. (Someone on the reception pressed a buzzer in your room if your mum was checking up on you and you’d then be required to sprint.)

Things have thankfully moved on a little in the intervening period. But there is one thing I’m certain remains the same at universities today and that’s the division between students who know where they’re headed and those who don’t.

Career

Some people go to university with a very specific goal in mind. Perhaps they’re intending to enter a profession such as medicine, law or accountancy. Alternatively, they may have a clear idea that they would like to work in, say, finance, technology or the media. With the astronomical cost of higher education today, I suspect the proportion of people with a clear sense of direction is higher than it would have been in the 1980s. It’s simply too much of a financial risk to pursue education for education’s sake unless you’re very comfortably off.

There will, however, still be a significant number of very able university students who don’t necessarily have their career mapped out. These are the people who fall below the radar of the typical graduate recruiters, for a couple of reasons.

The first and most obvious issue is that, understandably, the employers tend to look for focused and career-minded recruits, so may not be hugely interested in those who don’t yet have a clear sense of their future plans. The second problem is that people who fall outside the careerist contingent simply don’t ever come into contact with the graduate recruiters. This is because they tend to be people who just don’t go to the fairs or trawl the beautifully designed graduate microsites created by advertising agencies.

I was a social scientist, who had half a mind to teach and a vague sense that I’d probably end up in politics. As a result, I paid absolutely no attention whatsoever to any of the 80s-style recruitment activity that was taking place on campus at the time. It completely passed me by. No doubt, on the other side of the student bar, there was another guy who had all the visits of leading investment banks marked in big red letters in his Filofax. We didn’t speak to each other.

The danger, I think, for graduate recruiters is the natural tendency to refresh the organisation with people who fit a very predictable profile. For many employers, the idea of reaching out beyond the obvious cohort of recruits is anathema. Why go to the trouble of seeking out people who aren’t even looking?

The answer, I think, lies in the diversity and range of perspectives that healthy, thriving businesses need. We all pay lipservice to the relentless pace of change and the fast-moving world we inhabit. But how easy is it to innovate and rethink old working practices, when we don’t move outside closely defined parameters in recruitment?

Employers who want to look beyond the obvious recruits inevitably need to think quite laterally and creatively. When students aren’t actively seeking out employers, it’s difficult to intrude on their world. That’s where unusual, high-impact events, intelligent use of social media and even the deployment of unexpected ‘guerrilla’ marketing tactics on campuses might well have a critical role to play.

There’s no risk in adopting a predictable formula, as no one will ever criticise you for taking the path your business has already followed many times before. But if you want to find a new blend of talent and aptitude – and perhaps some left-field thinking from your future employees – you may have do some left-field thinking yourself.

Phil Woodford was formerly joint creative director at leading London recruitment marketing agency. For the past eight years, he has worked as a freelance writer, trainer and lecturer. Phil delivers workshops in copywriting and marketing communications for the Chartered Institute of Marketing and teaches advertising at the French business school Groupe INSEEC. He blogs at www.108thstreet.co.uk.

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