How to punch above your weight, and win the war for graduate talent

In the past, the best graduates almost always set their sights on bigger companies (see the Times Top 100 graduate schemes). After all, these businesses had the money to spend on university campus recruitment schemes (so could grab them early) and could afford to offer generous annual salaries and long-term career opportunities – for the right people.

However, graduates’ career preferences have changed over the past decade. In a survey conducted by smallbusiness.co.uk in May 2017, more than 9000 students and graduates were asked about their work intentions over the following 12 months. Of the 63% who were looking to start a new job, 37% of those wanted to work for an SME employer, compared to the 29% who were considering a big company.

It seems that graduates are fast recognising that big companies don’t always offer the best career opportunities. Recent research by Hot Spots Movement for PwC, discovered higher than looked for graduate turnover was closely linked to a lack of global career opportunities and insufficient time for regenerative activities.

That means that there is a pool of talented graduates out there, looking to join a business just like yours. Here are five ways in which you can help attract them to your company – and ensure they stay.

Offer responsibility

One reason why graduates are drawn to smaller companies is because they’re given more opportunities. Flatter hierarchies and more agile organisations often mean they’re able to take on greater responsibilities from day one, and more likely to find themselves in a position where they can mentor other employees, or make a real difference to the organisation relatively quickly. As an SME, you can use this to your advantage by emphasising that you offer this kind of opportunity and that the successful candidate will have more one-on-one contact with senior employees, and therefore in a better position to learn and develop. It’s common to have little to no contact with senior staff at bigger companies (unless you’re fetching them a latte), so this is a big draw for graduates.

Think carefully about your job advertisement

Set the bar at the right level: It seems obvious, but it’s essential that recruiting managers target the right level of graduate. For instance, if you’re looking for first-class graduates to work with new cutting-edge technology, there’s no point asking for candidates with a 2:2 or above. You may get more applications, but the first-class candidates you’re really after will think that the job is beneath them. Conversely, if the job doesn’t require a top degree, you don’t want to attract someone who will quickly discover the job isn’t stretching or exciting enough for them, realise they are better off elsewhere, and leave.

Focus on successes over experience: when recruiting graduates, attitude and approach matter much more than experience, so stress that in your job description. They’re likely to be fresh out of university, so they probably haven’t had lots of relevant experience under their belt anyway. Even if they have worked in a similar business, it could be they spent their time filing documents and setting up meeting rooms, so they’re not necessarily the better candidate. However, by pinpointing the graduates’ successes, whether that’s something they’ve achieved during their degree, in a previous job or as part of a university society or sports team for instance, you will gain a clearer idea of whether they are the right candidate for the role.

Make the job spec graduate friendly: Using business jargon may be all well and good in the office, but recent graduates may not be so clued up with your terminology, so don’t clutter your job description with it. It’s likely to make them feel under-qualified, or stop them from understanding the role properly. It’s good practice to let one of the younger members of your company check the job spec before it’s posted.

Advertise in the right places: You’re dealing with digital natives, so it makes sense to harness the power of the internet and social media to attract the best talent. This doesn’t need to be labour intensive or prohibitively expensive. Modern, cost-effective HR systems, like Cezanne HR, have recruitment software that can automatically post your vacancies to free job boards and lets you share vacancies through your personal LinkedIn page, company twitter feed or via email.

Pitch the right rewards

Graduates who have just left university will no doubt have student debt on their minds. However, while you may not be able to compete with the big boys on salary, there are other things that you can offer that make you attractive. Millennials and Generation Z place a lot of value on company culture, work flexibility and office perks, and they’re often willing to sacrifice a higher wage for these things – along with the chance to contribute to the business in other ways. Whether it’s a ping pong table in the rec room, frequent work socials, or a health insurance programme, rethinking your company culture to attract the next generation of your workforce could be something to consider.

Invest in training

The prospect of training will attract the best graduates. They wouldn’t be where they are if they didn’t want to develop, so teaching them a new skill and allowing them to use it in practice will make your junior employees want to stay. Because it’s often considered to be too expensive, SMEs regularly dismiss training. However, encouraging graduates to attend conferences, setting up mentoring schemes, or putting on one day of training a month with a senior member of staff is an affordable way to keep your graduate employees engaged, and they’ll feel like they’re progressing at your company, and in their career.

Deliver on your promises

Last, but not least, don’t make promises you know you can’t meet. Digital natives are not slow to share broken promises and bad experiences online, and employer review sites like Glassdoor, are often the first point of call of your digitally-savvy graduate. Graduates value honesty, and it’s much better to tell it as it is, than pretend to be something you are not. The last thing you need is a spate of negative – and anonymous – online reviews from current or former employees.

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