Jason shares the results of SAS’s latest graduate research conducted with Opinion Panel into the underlying thoughts and feelings of students with regard to potential employers and future employment.
Despite being awash with research about students and their
job-hunting foibles, we at SAS always have the nagging feeling that
the research doesn't really ask the tough questions about what
students are really thinking and feeling. Yes, we know students
read publications X, Y and Z and that they prefer websites to
brochures. So, in partnership with Opinion Panel, we attempted to
get under the skin of 1000 final year students from the UK's top 20
ranked universities with a few uncomfortable questions.
The results revealed:
The doom and gloom first
Almost 90% of the sample told us that generally students are worried about their career prospects, and as many as 63% believe that some people are just switching off from job hunting for the time being because they are so pessimistic about their prospects of securing a job. In fact, 78% said that many students are resigned to doing unpaid or very low paid work after university to build their employability. These are challenging times indeed for students, so their appetite for help from employers is greater than ever.
Students behaving badly
The zeitgeist has prompted some undesirable student behaviour, and not just defacing some of London's finer bronze statues. Our research reveals that in the face of uncertainty about post university career prospects, 55% of students at the UK's top 20 universities admit that they would hold on to more than one job offer. Forty-two per cent admit they would accept the first credible job offer they receive simply as security until they get an offer they actually want. Added to this, over 40% and 60% of the 1000 students, respectively, admitted to having changed their Facebook profile details or privacy settings to throw employers off the scent - nearly 70% admitted to being paranoid that employers would check them out there.
When honesty really is a good policy
Ironically, it is more honesty that the students claim would make employers more credible - a case of double standards it would seem. Almost two thirds told us that being more honest about the reality of working for their organisations is the single most valuable thing that employers could do to make themselves more credible, with the second favourite being providing more evidence to prove what they claim. It's a powerful theme within the research, so whilst experience and intuition have taught us that students are very cynical this research finally adds a bit more quantitative muscle to our argument. And there is more than a little logic in employers actually taking this advice seriously, bearing in mind that just over half of the students tell us that they are applying to employers they are not genuinely interested in, and just under half admit to 'cutting and pasting' applications to as many employers as humanly possible. It seems that the extra time students tell us is in the research is being put into the job hunting process is more about quantity than quality. If ever there was an argument for helping students to self-select out more explicitly than usual then surely this must be it. Surely the biggest step to real self-selection would be fewer rose-tinted perspectives on life at an organisation.
More face-to-face time please
Of course students' desire for genuine, meaningful insights into employers and their roles will come as no surprise. Students seek insight from a wide range of trusted influences, with parents, friends who have done work experience, tutors and close relatives with relevant experience all rating above 85% in terms of levels of trust. In that context it's no surprise that clients with whom we have developed formal intern campus ambassador programmes have been delighted with the impact these programmes have had.
This trend for genuine insight is further supported by students' feedback on the sources they trust and value. Face-to-face interactions with employers at their presentations on campus are seen as being much more valuable than brochures and adverts, which scored lowest. And if you're thinking about whom to staff those events with, you won't be surprised to hear that 82% of the students have high or medium levels of trust for your current trainees, compared with 54% for your recruiters.
So providing people with direct access to your most relevant employees tickles the fancy of most students, but it's where and how that dialogue happens that is also crucial. It doesn't take a genius to spot the pattern in our research - when asked what the most useful things that employers could do for them, it was 'providing more short-term work experiences' that topped the charts by some margin. Second and third preferences were office-based open days and running more campus events attended by trainees. More purely promotional activities predictably lagged behind.
Work/life in the balance
When it comes to what students believe from potential employers in their marketing material it seems that some topics provoke cynicism more than others. A whopping 90% of the students admitted to believing messages about training and development and almost as many were happy to believe promises of overseas career opportunities. Things start to get decidedly trickier in the domain of promises of work/life balance and corporate responsibility credentials - in both cases almost 40% have little or no belief at all in employers' claims in these areas. Our belief that unless you have something really serious, relevant and substantiated to say in these areas you shouldn't make a song and dance about it seems to be borne out. Tread carefully!
Not immune to bad news
When the students were asked about their levels of trust in terms of the job security offered by specific sectors, the responses revealed sensitivity to recent events and media coverage. Whilst we don't have comparative data from a few years ago, it seems unlikely that high street banks and financial services would have featured among the bottom three sectors, so too for investment banking (though it seems application numbers continue to be robust in both areas). It is also highly unlikely that law and accountancy/professional services would have outperformed public sector in terms of perceived job security until relatively recently. Clearly students haven't been reading the legal press too closely, and the 'professions' seem set to prosper when job security is showing stronger than previously as a decision-making criterion.
A time for clear heads
The research throws up some clear themes, threats and opportunities for employers. On the one hand there is the big problem of ill-informed and inappropriate applications, and increasingly the same further down the funnel at job acceptance stage. Being more candid for self-selection purposes seems to be part of the answer, especially when students seem highly sceptical about topics such as work/life balance anyway, and are unable to spot the difference between competing employers. However, ultimately the real answer seems to lie in investing as much effort as possible into offering students meaningful interactions with your business and current trainees. On campus is good, at your offices is better, and genuine work experience really hits the sweet spot.
This is easy to say, but difficult to do for many, particularly for the smaller employers. For employers with less resource there will be a growing need to be even more focused about which campuses to target - at odds with the diversity agenda perhaps, but ruthless prioritisation is the order of the day.
Social media 'silver bullet'?
Perhaps social media could be the answer to fostering greater and more cost-effective dialogue between candidates and your trainees? There's no doubt that this is part of the answer and will continue to become a more accepted norm in the world of campus recruiting. We're working with many of our clients to build social media as a channel for attraction and relationship-building. For the time being, however, our research highlights that this scores well behind face-to-face contact. Social media-based dialogue should clearly be seen as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, face-to-face dialogue. Ultimately, however, in these straitened times, social media, most probably Facebook, may well be the 'silver bullet' win-win for employers and candidates alike, so long as employers are prepared to really make their pages a platform for genuine, useful dialogue between potential candidates and trainees.
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