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Small Business, Big Opportunity: 5 Ways SMBs Can Recruit New College Grads

In Hiring Strategy — by Erin Engstrom

recruit new college grads

If you’re an employer looking to hire on new college graduates this commencement season, you’re in good company. According to a CareerBuilder survey, two-thirds of employers plan to hire from the class of 2016. That’s up two percentage points from last year and the best hiring outlook for new college grads in a decade.

While the competition for this group of candidates may seem fierce, the reality is there’s plenty of talent to go around. In 2015, just 14 percent of graduating seniors had post-college jobs lined up.

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But for small businesses without endless resources, making new grads aware of opportunities can be a challenge. They’re less likely to be in your existing networks and may not be as savvy about job-search tools as more experienced candidates. Additionally, they’re more likely to cast an extremely wide net, as they likely have more geographical flexibility and a less-focused career path than older job-seekers.

Still, nearly two million students will graduate with bachelor’s degrees this year (you can double that number to account for those graduating with associate’s degrees, master’s degrees and PhDs), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It stands to figure that there are hundreds – if not thousands – of new college grads who are willing, eager and able to fill your openings.

For small businesses with entry level positions to fill, here are five ways to recruit new college grads for your openings. 

1. Emphasize flexibility and growth opportunities

Most new grads don’t leave college with a well-defined career path in mind. They’re curious about a lot, and can’t know what roles are best suited to their aptitudes and interests until they get some hands-on experience. This is where small organizations really have a leg up on their larger counterparts.

“SMBs can shape roles around people, their interests, capabilities, and desires to grow,” says Patrick Mulvey, CEO and managing director at the Center for Strategy Execution. “Large companies are much more restricted.”

Because small companies don’t have the rigid org charts that you see at big ones, employees have a greater chance to work across teams and functions, and get a more holistic view of business operations.

“You develop a much more rounded skill set at a small business than working for a giant corporation,” says Bill Fish, founder and president of Reputation Management. “You learn what everyone’s daily routine is, which helps you to grasp the intricacies of the business world in a much faster manner.”

And since there aren’t endless rungs on the ladder to climb, employees have greater access to top leadership, as well as more opportunity to become leaders themselves.

“Far more career-orientated than stereotypes would have us believe, millennials want a role that not only develops their skills with on-the-job training, but also respects and actively encourages them to give their opinion and participate in decision making, regardless of hierarchy, “ says James Rice, head of SEO at Picked. “If your company has a solid training scheme and an inclusive, non-hierarchical approach, it could be the perfect choice for many new graduates.”

2. Track applicants and keep the conversation going

On average, employers receive 39 applications for every entry level job, according to a survey by High Fliers Research. When you’ve got so many people applying to your opening, chances are you’re going to have to reject some pretty great applicants.

Futurestep, a division of executive search and management advisory firm Korn Ferry, found that only 22 percent of employers add college recruits to their long-term applicant tracking system after concluding a college candidate isn’t the right fit for an opening.

“Not keeping track of applicants is a huge missed opportunity,” Vivienne Dykstra, Futurestep’s business development director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told the Society for Human Resource Management. “A college grad may not yet be ready for a particular role, but keeping an ongoing dialogue open for when the ideal position is available will ensure that a candidate will choose your organization over a competitor.”

3. Develop an internship program

Among multinationals and Fortune 500 companies, internship programs are well-established candidate pipelines for entry level positions. In 2014, the National Association for Colleges and Employers found that 97 percent of large employers planned to hire interns.

For smaller businesses, though, such programs aren’t as common. They require substantial planning in advance and management throughout. But the potential rewards are huge.

“We have an undergraduate program and have taken 100+ undergraduates into the program successfully,” says Martin Brown, general manager at FM Outsource, a digital management agency. “They then work for us in part-time internship roles supporting their financial needs through college. We help them add skills they take on into their professional lives, and we cherry-pick the best undergrads for professional roles with our company.”

The benefits to employers are three-fold: Companies gain immense access to a talent pool from which to recruit, they can test-drive talent to ensure the fit is right before making an expensive commitment, and they get highly educated and affordable workers for part-time positions.

“This unique approach means we are competitive with the big guys who take the best talent before the rest of us even get a look in,” says Brown.

4. Connect with colleges (but not necessarily the career centers)

Establishing a relationship with area colleges is a no-brainer for company. Instead of reaching out to the college career center, though, consider connecting directly with the academic departments of the majors you’re interested in hiring. By doing so, you immediately aim your recruitment efforts at the exact group of students you’re targeting. You’re also making contact with people who have closer ties to your recruitment pool – students are going to have tighter relationships with their professors than the staff at the career center.

“We love new college grads and we routinely hire them by contacting various departments at highly ranked, local universities,” says Jesse Harrison, founder and CEO of Zeus Legal Funding. “This is the most untapped source of getting great employees and a lot of the bigger companies don’t do this.

“If we need someone with high analytical and math skills, we contact the mathematics or statistics department. If we need someone who is good at writing, we contact the English department. Usually, the head of the department will send out a mass email to all graduating students, resulting in a few applications and hires.”

5. Write a company blog

A corporate blog is the perfect way for candidates to peek behind the curtain and see what life at your organization is really like. Encourage multiple employees to contribute so readers can gain access to a wide range of voices and experiences.

“We share all of our experiences on our corporate blog, along with interviews and insights from the company’s founders and management team,” says Franzi Hunger, HR manager at Stylight. “We want our new hires to be convinced not only by the job they are applying for, but also by their future team.”

Remember that hiring is a two-way street: Employers not only have to feel certain that a candidate is the right fit for the company, candidates have to feel that the company is the right fit for them. The more information you can present up front, the more you can weed out prospective applicants who are looking for something other than what you have to offer.

Not all college grads aspire to work for the likes of Google and Nike – and even fewer will have the opportunity to do so. New college grads make great employees because they’re enthusiastic, curious and exceptionally trainable. Once you’re able to connect with new grads and frame your opportunity in the right way, you’ll have no trouble filling your entry level openings with promising, highly educated employees.

Photo: Jessie Jacobson

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