Recruiting with Class

A new generation of college students requires a creative approach to recruiting. Low-key interactions, environmentally friendly commitments and an emphasis on volunteerism won't hurt either.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010
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When she was a freshman at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Catherine Soler's interactions with professional-services giant Deloitte were limited to strolling past the booth at a career fair -- despite the fact that she was an accounting major. So when one of the advisers in Notre Dame's Multi-Cultural Student Service program sent her an advertisement in the late fall of 2008 for Maximum Impact: Deloitte's Alternative Spring Break program, the last thing on Soler's mind was trying to land a job there -- or anywhere else, for that matter.

Yet, having worked on numerous community-service projects in the past, Soler was intrigued by the program because it gave undergraduate students the opportunity to share their time and skills helping communities in need.

She submitted her application, aced the follow-up phone interview and soon found herself jetting off to Houston, where she spent her 2009 spring-break week working alongside other college students, Deloitte professionals and a United Way representative renovating a church to be used as a relief center for victims of Hurricane Ike. By the end of the week, there was no doubt in Soler's mind that she wanted to pursue a career with Deloitte after graduation.

"The people I worked with were incredible and they were one of the main reasons I want to work for Deloitte," says Soler, who will be joining the New York-based firm as an audit intern this summer. "I figured if Deloitte's the right place for them, then it definitely would be a good place for me."

That's exactly the response Deloitte was hoping for when it launched Maximum Impact in 2008. While reviewing data about when students were making career decisions, it became evident to Diane Borhani, director of campus recruiting, that critical choices were being made earlier than ever.

But just how could Deloitte grab the attention of a bunch of Generation Y students? Since the company has long been commited to community involvement, Borhani struck on the idea of asking students to forgo a week of beaches and volleyball for worksites and hammers.

"This generation is very committed to giving back, so why not demonstrate what this firm is all about by working with these students on some community-service projects during their spring break?" says Borhani. "It helps our brand, it gives back to the community, but it also gives students an early introduction to who we are and what we represent."

Throughout the week, students have the opportunity to chat casually with Deloitte professionals as they work on projects ranging from maintenance and cleanup to building nature trails to promoting literacy. But the networking doesn't end there.

Each night, teams of Deloitte professionals and college students eat dinner together and join in social activities, such as ice-cream socials, scavenger hunts and karaoke competitions. Those who are interested may attend a career night, where a local partner speaks about career opportunities at Deloitte and the firm's director of community involvement shares information about the firm's commitment to giving back. But attendance at the week's one and only recruiting event is not mandatory.

It was this low-key approach that helped sell Soler on a career with the firm. "I loved the fact that it wasn't really focused on Deloitte," she says. "For maybe two hours out of the whole week, there was something focused on a career in accounting, but the bulk of the trip was about the community service you were doing and the relationships you were making."

A number of companies have adopted similarly Gen Y-friendly and creative -- some might say "over-the-top" -- approaches to recruiting fresh young talent. For a generation accustomed to Xbox, Twitter and instantaneous communication, experts say, there's a tremendous value in taking an aggressive, interactive approach to building relationships.

"This generation is expecting something very different than what we as boomers expected when we were going through the interview process," says Sherry Benjamins, president of S. Benjamins & Co. Inc., a Seal Beach, Calif.-based talent-strategy consulting firm. "They are impatient; they want information; they want to be connected to somebody who's actually gone down that path and it's worked out for them."

But while such programs can be highly effective in attracting college students to a firm like Deloitte, critics worry they are giving young adults an unrealistic view of what life as an employee is actually like.

"They've narrowed the field by having an apt sales draw or gimmick, but have they communicated all the necessary information or even some of the downsides of the opportunity?" asks Bruce Tulgan, management consultant with a focus on young workers; founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., in New Haven, Conn.; and author of Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y.

"That's especially important in today's job market because the No. 1 cause of early voluntary departure among young employees is buyer's remorse: 'This isn't the experience you sold me.' "

Hitting the Jackpot

Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment Inc. gives college students a realistic preview of a casino-based career in its creative campus recruiting initiatives, according to Tulgan. Each year, Harrah's attracts anywhere from 700 to 1,500 MBA students to participate in the annual MBA World Series of Poker, a one-of-a-kind recruiting event. Held at Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, it gives candidates and recruiters the opportunity to get to know one another in a fun, casual setting.

Now in its fifth year, the MBA World Series of Poker grew out of Harrah's increasing need for MBA hires -- which stood at just eight to 10 per year until 2003, at which point that number ballooned to somewhere between 20 and 40, due to Harrah's tenfold growth in just seven years.

Students from top business schools such as Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford and University of California at Los Angeles compete for serious prizes, including tens of thousands of dollars in cash and luxury merchandise such as watches and expensive liquor.

All the while, recruiters and other Harrah's executives mingle amongst them, engaging in casual conversations and taking note of their poker-playing acumen, which coincidentally includes many of the same skills and attributes -- the ability to think quickly under pressure and assess risk, for example -- that are equally desirable in business candidates.

"Increasingly, poker is being viewed as a true test of your analytic abilities," says Brad Warga, corporate vice president of talent and employee engagement. "But while we certainly look at their skill and how they do in the tournament, we also look at the passion they have for playing the game. We really want people who are emotionally attached to the business."

Like Deloitte's Alternative Spring Break program, participants at the Harrah's event are not required to want to work with the company in order to attend, though it is mandatory to submit copies of their resumes.

Over the course of the weekend, Harrah's holds a number of voluntary recruiting events -- most specifically, a Friday night networking reception at which Harrah's recruiters and members of its executive team mingle with the MBA students, seeking out those who are "emotionally connected to gaming," according to Warga.

Saturday morning, Harrah's holds an informational breakfast session, which Warga describes as "essentially the same type of recruitment session we would do on campus somewhere like Harvard." Throughout the weekend, event sponsors -- which have ranged from Booz & Co., Microsoft, Activision and Dewars -- also hold informational sessions and interact with these potential young recruits, both formally and informally.

"You can sit there at the end [of a poker match] and say, 'Hey, it was really fun having you at the table. Have you ever considered a career in consulting?' " says Kristen Clemmer, principal and director of North American campus recruiting for Booz & Co. Inc. in Houston. "With this generation, finding distinctive ways to connect with them outside of the traditional sit-down interview is going to be the key to success."

Prior to the launch of the MBA World Series of Poker, Harrah's struggled to attract enough MBA students to meet the needs of its growing business. Since the event launched in 2006, Harrah's has not only met its growing demand for MBA hires, it's also earned a coveted spot on Fortune's list of the top MBA employers and as one of the "Best Places to Launch Your Career," as ranked by BusinessWeek.

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What makes Harrah's approach so effective, says Tulgan, is the fact that it is organized around the work that will be done. "They are trying to attract a large applicant pool of people who are interested in poker -- that's a good thing because when you get here, you are going to get a lot of poker," he says. "The flipside is making it seem too fun because when you get there [as an employee], you are going to be running around like a maniac because there's a lot of work to be done."

Balancing Act

While Harrah's recruits students to play poker and Deloitte engages them in volunteer work, New York-based Ernst & Young invites college students to develop and submit proposals for community programs that would make a difference in education, entrepreneurship or the environment -- the three primary focuses of the accounting and financial consulting firm's own corporate responsibility goals.

Launched in the fall of 2008, the "Your World, Your Vision" competition targets business majors at Ernst & Young's main recruiting schools. Working in teams of at least five, they draft a summary of their plan, why they have chosen that particular cause, the situation as it stands currently, when they plan to execute it and how they plan to spend the $10,000 prize money, should they win.

In judging the entries, a member of Ernst & Young's corporate-responsibility team -- along with the Recruiting Center of Excellence, the firm's recruiting-leadership team -- looks for creativity, clarity of communication and how much impact the proposed plan would ultimately have. Not surprisingly, requiring students to submit formal proposals was a deliberate move on Ernst & Young's part to help them assess the business skills of these potential future employees.

"This program allows us to actually see some of the students in action in terms of teaming, creativity, leadership, managing tasks or multi-tasking," says Dan Black, the firm's director of campus recruiting in the Americas. "Certainly, having insight into those skill sets and those attributes is something that will completely help us, should we decide to pursue any of them for employment at the firm."

This year's competition attracted entries from more than 60 colleges and universities. Each team was assigned a young Ernst & Young adviser to help them throughout the process -- from putting their idea into proposal format to budgeting to submission.

Three winning teams -- from the University of Calgary; the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; and the University of Maryland, College Park -- each received $10,000 to implement their respective programs.

Once the prize money is awarded, Ernst & Young doesn't close the door on these students. On the contrary, the assigned advisers stay in touch with all of the competitors -- not just the winners -- making sure they are aware of upcoming recruiting events and encouraging them to apply for the firm's summer leadership program.

Black is quick to point out that the program is not an internship, but rather an opportunity for students to come get a closer look at the office and meet some of the Ernst & Young team.

"Being able to have exposure to students early in their academic careers and then stay in touch and talk to them about opportunities at the firm makes it a little easier when it comes time for them to decide on employment," says Black. "To know us is to like us, so the earlier we can get in front of someone, generally speaking, the better the result in terms of our recruiting efforts."

Such efforts to stay in touch and provide summer internships and other networking opportunities negates some of Tulgan's criticism that creative campus recruiting efforts fail to give students a realistic impression of what a career with that company would really be like, according to Sherry Benjamins.

"They are providing internships and they are staying connected and managing those relationships," she says. "That's how they improve their retention because these young grads have already had some experience with a couple of senior leaders and they've done some actual work for the company. That's real progressive thinking."

See also:

Turning the Tide on Turnover

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