Global Companies Want Universities to Help Scoop Up Student Talent

As the oft-cited but very real “global competition for talent” heats up, multinational corporations want stronger relationships with the key universities seen as being able to supply talented graduates.

That may be the chief take-home lesson for the higher-education crowd from a visit I made to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ annual meeting in Dallas and from some subsequent telephone conversations.

The association had its first ever “Global Campus Recruitment Symposium,” a concrete expression of growing interest by universities and employers in making the career-services conversation more international. University career-services offices find themselves having to serve the needs of international students and connect with multinational corporations. Representatives of global corporations want to build positive reputations with students, find interns, and recruit graduates.

The upshot: “Corporations are looking for fewer but deeper partnerships with universities,” says Manny Contomanolis, associate vice president at Rochester Institute of Technology and a former president of NACE.

He and others say that corporations are interested in connecting with students online and through their professors, advisers, administrators, and campus clubs. Some corporations are also interested in helping out in the effort to get more women and members of minority groups in the pipeline for science and engineering jobs, since many companies seek more diverse workforces.

“Employer branding,” in which corporations try to plant a favorable, distinct impression as a good place to work in the minds of potential employees, is growing in importance, company representatives said at the symposium. Such branding is not new: Surveys of students’ opinions of companies have existed for at least 20 years. But employer branding has spread from financial-services and information-technology companies to a wider array of corporations. It has progressed from slogans under logos to more contemporary campaigns in which, for instance, armies of employees informally send out messages via social media to students. “Multinational employers are looking for ways into students’ lives that don’t invade their privacy,” says Ray Ferreira, vice president for strategic services for Baldwin & Obenauf, a marketing company in Bridgewater, N.J. “Getting to an e-mail address doesn’t do as much good as it used to.” (Mr. Ferreira blogs about employer branding at The University Space.)

Corporate surveys of students are stepping up in frequency. “Students are becoming one of the most oversurveyed populations in the world,” says Kirsten Williamson, managing director of Petrus Communications, a Paris-based marketing and communications firm. She has heard from university career-services offices in Britain and France that eight to 10 companies a year are asking the offices to distribute surveys to their students.

Today’s students are not particularly interested in sitting in on face-to-face company presentations, Ms. Williamson says, so companies have to seek other ways to appeal to them. In countries as diverse as Italy, Poland, and China, Shell, the oil company with its headquarters in the Netherlands, sought out students to serve as campus “brand managers.” The students had some set duties, such as making the company visible on their university’s career-services Web site, but they also had a budget to find other ways to connect the company with their peers. Some of the projects the students tried included photography competitions and site visits to the company.

Of course, it is relatively easy to build excitement about postgraduation employment if the company is Google, which has a constant Internet presence and gets lots of free publicity about elaborate company perks. (Google consistently tops desirable-employer rankings.) It’s a harder climb if a company is best known for kitchen appliances or copying machines. Think Whirlpool and Xerox. Such companies, says Mr. Contamanolis, may have “a lot of fascinating cutting-edge applications beyond what they make, but the companies need to get that across.”

Corporations are trying to find out what affects students’ employment choices in different countries. Airbus, the aircraft manufacturer with headquarters in Toulouse, France, has found in its surveys that “training and development opportunities” are particularly important to students in Spain, while “work-life balance” is important to German students, and job security is important to students in India.

Airbus has connected with students through a “fly your ideas” competition that has just come to a close, encouraging students to suggest ways that the aviation industry could have a lighter environmental impact.

Companies like Airbus are also creating, in essence, their own university networks. On the university side, institutions are often appointing one person to manage the corporate relationship. McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, coined the phrase the “war for talent” in 1997. The future battlefields in that war are being mapped out in the relationships that corporations and universities are building now.

David Wheeler is an editor at large for The Chronicle.


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