The Future of University Recruiting: Key Learnings from our London Event

David Shull

August 28, 2019

On a sunny Thursday morning in June, over 70 leaders from universities and employers across Britain gathered in London to share their perspective and explore what the future of university recruiting may bring.

The day opened with a panel discussion of the challenges facing UK universities and employers. These foundational panels featured perspectives from the University of Liverpool, GradConsult, Universities UK, SkyScanner, Clifford Chance, Google, and Transform Society and helped define the landscape for the design thinking workshop in the afternoon.

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Key Panel Takeaways:

  • Graduate employability is a priority at all levels of the university. The pressure is building — Universities are under increasing pressure to prove ROI at the federal level. This starts at the vice-chancellor level and relies on its way to the careers services leadership level. New reports like Augar add to the uncertainty with suggestions of outcome-related funding.
  • Universities need new ways to effectively scale their impact as resources are constrained while enrollment increases. Universities are looking for new ways to scale their service. With limited resources being stretched to serve tens of thousands of students universities are looking at peer to peer learning and technology as a way to make an impact at scale.
  • Employers are starting to go around the careers services in their search for the right talent. As employers seek to build their most diverse teams ever, three of the four employers on the panel had strategies in place that involved less direct university partnerships. Employers instead are opting for new ways to find previously undiscovered talent such as sourcing and virtual events. Importantly, the panellists said they had increased their investments in careers service partnerships when the institution has created new models for connection. Employers agreed that more effective ways of connecting with universities at scale are required.

It was with these challenges top of mind that we introduced the design thinking workshop, where attendees broke into small groups of 4–5 people to explore a relevant problem of their choosing.

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How Might We

To introduce the design thinking workshop, the facilitator prompted groups to ponder a problem in the form of “How might we?”

Examples selected by the group included, how might we:

  • Help students understand the drivers for what the “right” job looks like
  • Create more meaningful student engagement
  • Make our university an enticing place for employers
  • Create meaningful engagement early on in a student’s journey
  • Create a more personalised experience
  • Create more unique ways for students to engage with employers
  • Be seen as a necessity to the students
  • Help students feel less anxious about finding/sourcing placements so that they can take ownership of their future
  • Change perceptions of career development work amongst academics and students
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The Ideas

Creativity was on display throughout. At the end of the workshop, each group pitched their prototype solution. The solutions included a robot using artificial intelligence to answer career-related questions and a careers festival with different tents representing each significant section of the career development journey.

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It was particularly exciting to see the solutions that came about when universities, employers, and technology partners like Handshake work together on a solution.

Our Take — A New Era of Connection and Scale

As we enter the UK, we’ve been exploring how we think Handshake can make an impact on the challenges facing this ecosystem. In that spirit, we thought we’d share our thoughts on some of the “how might we” (HMWs) statement above. For this article, we’ve summarised the HMWs into two key points:

  1. The legacy model of connecting employers, students, and universities has not aged well. It creates inequalities that prompt universities to ask how they can make themselves of interest to companies. Meanwhile, employers are desperate for a more efficient way to connect with diverse talent pools.
  2. Universities need tools to help them scale their impact and deliver personalised and meaningful engagement across increasing numbers of students — all with limited resources.

A New Model of Connection — From Silos to Networks

The “How might we make our university enticing for employers” effectively encapsulates the challenge we see with today’s model of university recruitment.

Most employers agree that great talent exists everywhere and that as they seek to build more diverse teams, they need to diversify where they are looking for talent. This sentiment was summarized well by Bob Athwal on the employer panel who said:

“We hear a lot about this war for talent. I don’t believe there is any such thing. If you think there is a talent war that just means you’re looking for talent in the same spot as everyone else” — Bob Athwal

The challenge then becomes what’s the most effective way to find that ‘hidden’ talent. As we heard from the employers, currently universities are one of the least efficient ways to unearth new talent pools.

The old model of University Recruitment

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Here’s what the legacy model of recruitment looks like from the perspective of a recruiter:

Prerequisites: know that XYZ university exists well enough to know step one should happen. Generally, this filters out any university without a strong brand, and often even the most prominent brands can get filtered depending on the location of the recruiter, the industry they’re in, and so on.

  1. Run a search for the employability office at XYZ university
  2. Find and navigate to the employer’s section of the University website
  3. Find out what they call their system
  4. Create an account in the system
  5. Wait for approval — (can’t move forward until this step has been completed which can take hours to days)
  6. Create a vacancy → fill out the entire form (takes ~15 minutes or more). Copy and paste support is often limited.
  7. Wait for approval
  8. Sit back and hope that the right student happens to log in at the exact right time to see your post and takes the time to apply.

Repeat for every university for which you want to connect. It’s a time-consuming process that takes hours to post at six universities, and after all that, you’re still just hoping the right student applies.

Let’s say at a university of 30,000 students 1000 students could be a good fit for that role. Let’s say XYZ University has about 80% of students log in per year with 60% of that engagement happening in the fall (when the employer posts this hypothetical role). We’re at 480 (1.6% of the student population) of qualified students that could even see the position. This does not factor in search preferences, employer branding and the likelihood of a student to apply to the post from a company they may or may not be familiar. Worse still, most legacy systems don’t personalise the experience for a student, so finding relevant positions is incredibly challenging.

For every vacancy that doesn’t get relevant applicants, the employer's perception of the university degrades. There has got to be a better way.

The New Model: Networks, Personalization, and Sourcing

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Networks have changed everything about our life. Amazon connects us to a network of resellers — giving us a single place to manage almost all of our online shopping. Facebook connects us to friends and family around the globe, and LinkedIn helps us organise and stay in touch with our professional relationships.

We believe networks will have the same impact on the early careers ecosystem and have built Handshake as a network from day one.

Here is what the experience for that same recruiter looks like in Handshake.

  1. Log in to the Handshake platform
  2. Create a job posting (job, internship, volunteering opportunity, etc.)
  3. Select the universities you’d like to post the job to (one, five, or eight-hundred — it’s centralised and doesn’t cost anything).
  4. Navigate to the students tab, where you can see students who have made their professional profiles visible to employers. Run a quick search for students with relevant skills.
  5. Send them a quick message inviting them to apply to the position posted in their university careers portal
  6. Logout

The new approach has a few key differences:

  1. It’s centralised: Handshake lets employers manage their entire early career strategy from a single account. From posting vacancies to multiple schools to managing their branding — it’s all centralised, and all the core features are free for employers. Centralisation drastically lowers the barrier or entry and helps connect to more schools.
  2. It’s proactive: Employers no longer have to sit back and hope the right student applies. With in-app messaging, they can invite relevant candidates to apply to positions and attend their events, resulting in a more personalised experience for both employer and student. A proactive approach drives far better results in a far more efficient way than relying on post and hope strategies alone.

Centralisation and proactive recruiting combined with a student experience that helps surface relevant roles based on what a student values, their location and sector preferences, and their behaviour on the system create a far more efficient way for students to discover opportunity.

Summary: Most employers want tools to connect with universities more efficiently, but today’s legacy systems make it more efficient for them to go outside the career service to communicate with students. By adopting a network-centric system, universities immediately make their students more accessible to employers around the globe.

Technology — Enabling Meaningful Engagement at Scale

We were fortunate to be joined in the design thinking workshop by current students at Kingston University, Lancaster University, and the University of Liverpool to share their critical perspective.

When we asked students where they went for trusted career-related information and opportunities they listed:

  • Rate My Placement
  • Glassdoor
  • LinkedIn
  • Friends/Family Networks
  • Prospects
  • Indeed

Students rarely credited their careers service office for connecting them to these services and universities have a hard time incorporating this engagement into a data-driven story of the impact they are having.

At the same time, careers services shared that they wanted ways to provide meaningful engagement to students at scale. Today, many of the career management technologies focus on the transactional experiences which are inherently time-bound and driven only by a specific need.

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These triggers could be registering for an event, requesting an appointment, applying to a vacancy, or applying for a placement program. These are great things, but they miss a large part of the journey and forces students to turn to other tools to explore their careers. Here is what a student's journey might look like across a variety of tools:

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We believe that the future of these systems empowers career services teams to help students at every stage of the journey. While still supporting the traditional workflows, Handshake has introduced features to help students create their first professional network, build social capital, and discover new opportunities.

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This approach is backed up by data. Across the ~900 universities that have switched to Handshake in the US, the average increase in student engagement is 60% during the first year on the platform alone.

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All of this engagement is made available to universities via Handshake Insights — allowing employability offices to tell the whole story of the student journey and their impact along the way.

These features enable students to learn from the careers team, from peers, and employers in massive numbers without impacting the workload of the careers teams. We believe this is where technology can help employability offices scale.

Summary: To have a meaningful engagement at scale, universities must embrace systems that handle the transactional workflows but also create a continuous cycle of engagement for students at every step of the career development journey.

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An Exciting Road Ahead

We learned a lot during the Future of University Recruiting conference, and so appreciated everyone who joined us.

Many of the ideas in this post were inspired back in 2014 when we hosted similar events in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. We put listening and learning at the core of our company philosophy, and functions like these help us co-create the future of our profession with our partners.

We look forward to continuing to work with our early partners across the UK to build something truly great. Together, we believe we can truly make an impact and democratise opportunity.

If you’re interested in learning more about Handshake, I’d be more than happy to chat — my email is