Combining an out-of-the-box approach with old-fashioned hard work will help you succeed at campus recruiting.

For several years, a shortage of top talent across industries has hampered staffing efforts at even the most prominent companies. Despite headline-grabbing layoffs, a 2023 survey of companies in eight different countries found that 77% say talent shortages are still a challenge. A Fortune/Deloitte poll also found that 71% of CEOs expect general talent shortages to continue in 2023, and 94% expect to see shortages in specific roles.

As a possible recession looms, recruiters must prepare for a workforce paradox of talent shortages in a time of economic uncertainty—especially recruiters at small- or medium-size businesses who find themselves competing with big-name brands.

Fortunately, recruiters still have one reliable place to find fresh talent: college campuses.

If you don’t have a presence on campus, new grads are less likely to know your company exists, much less consider applying to one of your open roles. But how can you compete with companies that have globally recognized employer brands and show up to every job fair at every major university? The chief answers are focus and creativity.

As a recruiter with more than 20 years of experience at both large and small enterprises, including my most recent role as Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at OpenText, I’ve done my fair share of new grad recruiting. Here are some tried-and-true campus recruitment strategies that have worked for me, along with examples of the creative thinking needed if you want your small- or medium-size company to stand out to student applicants.

A quote about campus recruiting reads: “When you have limited recruiting resources, a narrow focus is better than a broad brush.”

Dip Into Local Talent Pools

When you have limited recruiting resources, a narrow focus is better than a broad brush. You need to be strategic about where you choose to recruit. It’s better to have two or three great relationships with schools than it is to display job postings at a hundred universities.

But how should you choose your schools of interest?

Start by looking locally. Travel expenses for on-campus activities will be lower when you stick to nearby colleges and universities, and recent grads might feel more comfortable applying to companies with nearby facilities, something I learned when I was at Caesars Entertainment. We had relationships with Vanderbilt University and Duke University because of our casino and hotel properties in the South. After hiring recent grads from both, they told us that our proximity to the schools factored into their decision to work for us.

You can pair this local approach with a systematic analysis of university programs. For example, if you’re looking for UI/UX designers, a nearby university with the most notable design program should be your top priority. You can determine top university programs by considering the number of graduates in a given field and the selectivity of the programs. You may also wish to consult the company’s expert practitioners and recent hires in the field for their opinions of the university programs in your area.

I recall one particularly successful college recruiting season when I was at Medidata. Rutgers University was our local state school and we went there looking for recent grads in health science. Three of us went to the main campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and each of us interviewed 12 people in one day. We had 36 students to choose from, and we hired 12. We brought in these new college grads, trained them, and then watched how they performed over the year. We had a high retention rate: Out of the 12 students hired, 11 made it through the year and became very well-regarded employees. In making those hires, we started a relationship with the school and worked to understand its students’ capabilities. The students we hired also told us that they liked that we were a small, fast-growing business.

Establish Campus Connections

Once you’ve pinpointed the university you’d like to visit, here are some ways you can grow your relationship with the school and source its best talent.

  • Connect with career centers. If the career center manager is convinced that you can offer good employment opportunities to students, they will keep you in mind whenever a strong candidate comes their way. You don’t need to make cash donations. Those are fine if you have the budget, but all you really need to do is emphasize your ability to connect students to internships and careers.

  • Leverage company executives. A company president or VP with a connection to a local university can be a great resource. When I’m trying to decide which schools to focus on, I might go with the less prestigious university if one of our executives is an alum. We have that person as a resource—they can come to seminars, webinars, or talks at the school on behalf of the company and make us look attractive to the students.

  • Reach out to future recruits. Which types of events are top students likely to attend? Which campus activities can help you identify potential talent? If you want to hire software engineers, consider online and local coding challenges. Why not hold your own undergrad coding competition? Get creative and find ways to get your company’s name out there in a way that’s alluring to students.

Leverage Your Employer Brand

Sure, all that boots-on-the-ground stuff makes sense, you might be saying—but what happens after you’ve spent your on-campus activity budget? What else can you do?

When I was at Caesars, we wanted to hire bright tech MBAs fresh out of school for a new business initiative. We quickly realized that MBA graduates rarely consider the gaming and entertainment industry a suitable match for their skills. Then it occurred to me: Every year, Caesars hosts the World Series of Poker. It’s a huge event, and not only do top poker players from around the world attend, but it also attracts a sizable online audience.

You can find poker players in every walk of life—including among MBA students. So I thought, why not host a special MBA World Series of Poker? I envisioned a fun event with rewarding prizes—and with participants self-selecting for interest in Caesars.

Bottom line: It worked great. We nabbed a leading Harvard Business School candidate who was getting interest from Microsoft. After we signed him up at Caesars, I got a call from the head of MBA recruiting at Microsoft. She was very nice about it; she asked, “How did you get this guy? Because we were going to hire him, Susan, and he was the best summer intern we ever had. I just felt compelled to call you because I don’t get why he’s going to a gaming company.”

I started laughing and said, “Well, maybe it’s more fun to work on a casino floor than in a cubicle.” We became phone friends and I asked her later, “What if you sponsor the event next year? You can do an event at Caesars with Microsoft’s name all over it and you’ll have full access to the thousand-person résumé book of students we put together. We don’t need thousands of new employees, we just need 12, so this can help us both.”

She said, “I'm in.”

Not every enterprise is the host of a celebrated global event. Still, your company undoubtedly has unique strengths and draws that recruiters can boast about to appeal to recent grads in your region and hiring sector. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to go above and beyond to lure applicants to your campus event, career fair, or company job portal.

Feed Your Campus Recruitment From Within

Another way to attract grads is to let your recent hires recruit for you. The more your company improves onboarding and the first year of an employee’s experience, the more likely they’ll be to help recruit their peers. As they report good experiences to their friends, department advisors, and career counselors, your stock will rise at the university, and the staff will be more likely to recommend your company to seniors and new graduates.

As a recruiter, it might require some additional work to influence your company’s staffing practice directly. I recommend that when you become aware of problems within the company that affect employee satisfaction—poor relationships with managers, bad communication within the company, lack of schedule flexibility—report it to your recruitment manager. If you maintain contact with your hires, you can learn about their experiences during their first year. If they are having systemic problems, let the company know.

Statistics from the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2023 report show a strong market for college graduates.

Polish Your Corporate Image

Gen Z employees want many of the same things that workers from past generations do: good pay, job security, pleasant working conditions, and the ability to advance within their company. But there are some social and cultural factors that companies should note too.

In a job market where top candidates have their pick of companies to work for, the salary you offer may not tempt them if you’re short in other areas. Moreover, if you can distinguish your firm with other positives, you can outcompete larger and wealthier companies that may not be addressing the following points:

  • Professional training and first-year support. Many university programs don’t train their graduates in all the professional skills they will need for the workplace—and graduates are keenly aware of this. Since they haven’t held corporate positions before, they may suffer from impostor syndrome, regardless of their university preparation. A clear understanding that their first year will include professional training to supplement their degree programs can be attractive to many applicants.

  • Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) considerations. Many new graduates are extremely sensitive to corporate responsibility for social ills and care about their company’s environmental impact and participation in positive environmental initiatives. If your organization is responsible, consistent, and active in addressing social and environmental problems, you should emphasize these qualities in your campus recruitment materials and presentations.

  • Openness and access to leadership. Today’s graduates expect transparent and honest communication from the top leaders of their organizations. They want to know what the C-suite thinks about corporate policy, company performance, and prospects for the future. By convincing your company’s leaders to communicate consistently to meet these expectations, you can appeal to recent grads.

Young people want to work at an organization that has a purpose and a positive impact on the world. But there's a balance between being a responsible corporate citizen and running a business efficiently. A company can only positively impact society if it’s profitable enough to remain in business. Ultimately, impact depends on what the company believes and how it wants to present itself to the world. The CEO and other employees at the top of an organization must determine what is important to the business, and communicate those priorities authentically and sincerely.

As a recruiter, you should identify the company’s desired stance and image and present them on the company’s behalf. You can also help polish the image through your interactions with potential candidates.

Communicate Workplace Flexibility

Some companies pretend that work is the only thing that should matter to their employees, but now, more than ever, workers, especially Gen Z, consider all aspects of their lives when making career decisions. According to Adobe’s Future Workforce Study, new and upcoming grads cited “not providing a good work-life balance” as a top reason for turning down a job offer. It’s important to communicate what your company offers in terms of work-life balance and other soft benefits to potential recruits.

Of course, a recruiter can’t change a company’s management style or policy direction on their own. But what you can do is communicate clearly to the C-suite what the implications of its policies are for campus recruitment and advise on how best to appeal to young applicants.

My last piece of advice to recruiters is to keep in touch with hirees. I know the tendency is to consider the transaction complete when a recruit is hired, but it’s good to check in with them at day 30, day 90, and so on. You can find out what a company is doing well with onboarding and employee experience, and what is missing, and then you can share these reactions with your manager or company executives.

There are many challenges ahead for recruiters in 2023. Talent shortages will continue, budget cuts may stifle some opportunities, and layoffs can dampen morale. But if you continue to draw on the aforementioned creative strategies for campus recruiting, lean on your company’s connections and your relationships with recent hires, and stay diligent even in tumultuous times, you’ll find success in hiring the next generation of talent—and together, you’ll help create a better workplace.