How Companies Are Approaching College Recruiting During the Pandemic


How Companies Are Approaching College Recruiting During the Pandemic

Large employers have been attending college job fairs for decades as a means of filling their early career talent pipeline. Since they cannot meet or interview students in person right now, many have shifted to a digital-first approach that offers its own limitations as well as important benefits.

EAB’s Michaels Koppenheffer and Matt Pellish discuss how that transition is going and differentiate temporary workarounds from longer-lasting changes they believe will alter the way employers connect and engage with college students going forward.

They also offer tips to universities on how to partner with employers who may be looking to broaden their online recruiting footprint.



0:00:13.3 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours. Ever been to a job fair? Those words that might bring back some nostalgic visions of a large field house or a student center lined with these employer booths where you can meet a company rep, you could pass along your resume, even interview a little bit, all in person. This was a signature way large employers, they filled their early talent pipelines for decades, and now they’re a thing of the past. On today’s episode, I’m joined by EAB’s Michael Koppenheffer to talk about employers and specifically how have COVID-19 shifted, you might say forced, a lot of employers into a digital or a virtual approach.

0:00:49.3 MP: It’s got some limitations, but it also has some benefits. It expands the colleges companies are working with, and it also expands the applicant pool which affords a lot of diversity initiatives. We’ll talk about how it’s gone so far, and Michael will give us some insight into what he sees as the temporary fixes versus some of the longer-lasting changes that might alter how employers connect and engage with college students in the future. Finally, we’ll give some tips to university leaders on how to partner more closely with employers, help them benefit their students in the new world of the fully online recruitment. Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.


0:01:27.0 MP: Welcome to the podcast today everyone, to Office Hours with EAB. I’m Matt Pellish. And we’ve got a pretty special episode here for you today to talk a little bit more about the employer space. We focus so much on colleges and universities on COVID, we’re gonna bridge a gap here and move in to talk a little bit more about employers, and to do so, the best person we could bring out is Michael Koppenheffer from EAB’s Talent Marketing Services. Michael, welcome to the podcast.

0:01:50.0 Michael Koppenheffer: Hi, Matt. Glad to be here.

0:01:51.9 MP: And this is your first podcast with Office Hours. I think it kind of…

0:01:54.8 MK: It is.

0:01:55.0 MP: Before, so this is exciting. I gotta give a warning here, and maybe you’ve first heard this before. Its Veterans Day when we’re doing the recording, which means schools are closed. We finally went in person a couple of weeks ago. I got kids in school. They’re all back home today, so you’re likely to hear them at some point in the background here. I don’t know what it’s like where you’re joining from, but here in New York, it’s always a bit of an adventure even now as we come into the fall with COVID.

0:02:19.0 MK: Yeah. Here in D.C., schools have not reopened yet, so every day is an adventure.


0:02:24.1 MP: You never know what you’re gonna get. Well, Michael, I’d love to just kick off the first question here. You head up Talent Marketing Services at EAB. Can you just give our audience a little idea of what that is and what your role is in EAB and the work that you’ve been doing for the last several months through COVID and even beyond that?

0:02:39.2 MK: Absolutely. So I’ve been at EAB quite a long time. I’ve worked at a variety of different sites of our education work, but I actually spend my time on two different things right now, both of which I think are relevant to today’s discussion. One is that I lead our marketing work on behalf of college and universities that’s focused actually on recruiting high school students, engaging them in the college search and getting them to inquire and apply and ultimately attend. So that is a big part of what we do as you know. But I’ve also been lucky enough to be engaged in this new initiative that we’re gonna focus on today called Talent Marketing Services. And what that is, it’s our attempt to take some of the competencies that we’ve developed across the last several decades at engaging teens, young adults, and getting them to think about consequential life decisions, but applying it to a different problem set.

0:03:37.9 MK: So instead of the problem of, “I am a 15-year-old, I’m a 16-year-old, where should I be thinking about college? Where should… How should I be considering what colleges to apply to,” and so forth, it’s actually applying it to the post-graduation employment question. “So I’m a junior in college, I’m a senior in college, what should I be doing for a career? What actions should I be taking now to set myself up so that I can get the kind of job that I like? What are my… What even are the options on the table for me?” So we’re engaging this new space…

0:04:14.3 MP: What are…

0:04:14.5 MK: Sorry, go ahead.

0:04:15.8 MP: What are some similarities there when we think about the students who are coming from high school into college, and then from college, hopefully, into the workforce in tough economic times? What are some of the similarities you’ve seen in those two roles? You kinda have an interesting perspective there that gives us a little more of an insight. I’m curious what you’ve seen in similarities.

0:04:34.1 MK: So an interesting question because there are a lot of things that are similar about engaging these two populations. So high school students at the beginning of their process, they have a wide open considerations that they often, in many cases, don’t know really very much about the process they’re about to embark on, they don’t know what the way stations are, they don’t know what the choices are. And so there’s an opportunity to support them all along the way across multiple years and multiple phases of the consideration set, great consideration process. And the same is actually true for college students. So a lot of people, a lot of career centers pay attention to the senior year and the on-campus job search and how do we place our seniors, but really, what we’ve seen is that a lot of very thoughtful college career centers and a lot of employers are actually thinking earlier in the college experience and thinking about, “Well, how can we actually engage sophomores? How can we engage juniors in a meaningful way and helping them to understand careers, and potentially, if you’re an employer, consider coming to work at that particular employer?”

0:05:50.9 MP: You mentioned on-campus job search, and I think that that’s been a core part of the recruitment process. Employers come to campus for job fairs, on-campus recruiting. I wonder at the point in the shift that we’ve seen with so much virtual, how important is campus recruiting to big employers right now?

0:06:09.2 MK: You’re correct in asserting that. Historically, on-campus recruiting has been the mainstay of how large employers connect with college students. Many of the larger players that we’ve talked to have very well-developed and very effective on-campus recruiting operations that center around personal relationships and in-person events. As we all know, the last many months have made that typical playbook impossible to run, and so what we are seeing across all different kinds of employers is that they are being forced to reconsider the ways that they connect with students and figure out how they can accomplish some of the same objectives in the virtual world because they certainly can’t in the physical world.

0:07:00.1 MP: I miss that too, Michael, the idea of being in-person. We used to see each other in the office at EAB many months ago. And it’s been about eight months since I physically saw you.

0:07:06.9 MK: I can’t even remember what that’s like.

0:07:08.5 MP: I kind of remember physically what it was like to actually be in a room and have a conversation with you, and not do it over Zoom within the same way that it was felt. But that virtualized, it’s changed. It’s so much different now in terms of recruitment, which is in some way, shape or form, everything’s gone virtual in the last several months in the wake of the pandemic. I’m wondering, you talked about that virtualization of recruitment for employers. How has that gone? Has it gone well? Has it been a challenge? What have been some of the successes you’ve seen in that virtualized approach to recruitment for employers?

0:07:36.3 MK: Well, to be honest, we’re still fairly early in the recruiting cycles. So the ultimate success metrics, just like for colleges, are still a number of months away. However, what I’ve seen is that, for better and for worse, employers have had to completely flip their models on their heads because they know which creates opportunities and challenges. The opportunity is that if you’re hosting a webinar, or doing a roundtable discussion over Zoom, or some other type of virtual event, you can scale at virtually no cost. And so the huge opportunity for employers is that they can reach out to populations, to colleges, to geographies, where they had their in-person model didn’t allow them to go. And that’s great potentially for getting a broader talent market, for increasing the quality of applicants potentially for things like diversity. That is a ton of opportunity and aligns with what employers, many employers were seeking before the pandemic.

0:08:44.9 MK: The challenge though, is that it requires very different competencies. So in one of my former jobs, I worked with salespeople, but I worked in marketing. And while people often lump those two disciplines together, they are incredibly different because sales, and for that matter, HR and recruitment, are often concerned with one-on-one. One HR representative, one prospective student, or one prospective employee, and the two meeting on that level, whereas, in the virtual world, you have to think about how do you scale? How do you engage people at a distance? How do you take advantage of technology to reach not one student or 10 or even 100, but maybe 1000 or 10,000? And you do that differently, and that’s not something that employers typically know how to do.

0:09:39.1 MP: Interesting. With that, we’ve talked to a lot of students, and I’ve certainly heard in my work on campus that students are attending virtual job fairs, that was the niche for it. And I think it’s your plan, took what was done physically in person. Like a job fair, people come together in a field house, in a campus center, in a campus union, there’s booths, there’s employers, everybody talks to each other, and we’ll just shift that into the virtual environment, and I think that was one of the first forays we had seen there for a lot of students and employers. How are students and employers feeling about those? And again, just I know it’s early as you said in terms of the outcomes, but just general consensus from your conversations with employers, what you’re hearing from them, from the students, how do they feel about that movement to a virtual job affair and the response to what it’s been like?

0:10:18.2 MK: Broadly speaking, and I will say that all parties concerned, students, employers, colleges are figuring out how to make it work just like we’re seeing those of us who have kids in school. In many cases, we’re figuring out how to make it work, but what your question makes me think of is actually the experience of my kids, both of whom are high school age, in D.C. public schools. In March, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was not a coherent strategy, not a coherent infrastructure. The technology wasn’t working. It was kind of a mess. They’re at different schools. Their experiences were really disparate. This fall, honestly, it’s been tremendous. The schools have done such a good job delivering virtual instruction. The kids are used to it, both of my kids are really engaged. They’re both having great school years despite being virtual, and we’ve seen much of the same thing in the virtual recruitment process.

0:11:15.0 MK: There certainly have been plenty of horror stories about career fairs with technology glitches where people haven’t been able to log in, where nobody comes to the virtual rooms to talk, but increasingly, we’re hearing the alternative, which is stories of employers offering virtual events and having tremendously good participation and great genuine engagement, and high quality candidates coming through the virtual doors, and which I think speaks to the fact that virtual is neither good nor bad in itself, but a different set of competencies to execute. If you do it well as an employer, as a career center, as a student, you can still get a ton of the same benefits, and in some ways, accrue different benefits too.

0:12:08.7 MP: I think that’s a good… I always love to hear the personal story. Your kids are gonna be going through this relatively soon as they think about the college search process, and certainly, beyond that of how everything shifted to virtual. And your work on that enrollment side has been so much of a virtual recruitment and virtual admissions, the enrollment cycles going into this point. So I think it’s always a good way to think about it. On the other side, though, you mentioned several times now, competencies, the different competencies that are required in the virtual world versus the physical in-person approach that we did. What are some of those competencies that you look for or you’ve been trying to build into that work with employers or specific things that they’ve had to shift, or even seek out some new talent with those competencies to be successful in this realm? What do those look like? What do they start to stack up in the competency world?

0:12:51.7 MK: A couple of things come to mind, and they’re all broadly speaking in the marketing realm. The first is that most of the employers that we’ve talked to do not have an in-house competency at engaging their audience, in this case, students, through email and other mass channels. They’re great at writing individual emails to students, but if… When it comes to writing a stream of emails and maybe digital social ads and those text messages, it’s not what they typically know how to do. And so their instincts about what subject lines to use and how to frame the offers and how different to make the emails and how often they email people are not going to make them effective. And honestly, that’s the same thing that we see in our work with colleges. The reason that colleges and universities work with us is, in part, is that we’ve built up a distinctive competency at how do you get the attention of a distracted and busy 16-year-old, and the same is true for 21-year-olds.

0:14:06.9 MK: And so we’ve definitely seen an opportunity to, for… To work with employers on that side of it. The other thing that I’ve seen as I think as a emerging competency is to think more flexibly about how we can use this virtual world to bring different kinds of experiences and different types of content. I talk about content ’cause I’m a marketing person but different kinds of content to students.

0:14:36.1 MK: So a number of the employers that we’ve talked to as we’ve explored virtualization with them, they’re thinking, “Well, we used to do a 45-minute information session when we would go on campus to a certain college. We’re gonna take that information session, but we’ll do it over Zoom.” And you could do that and that’s fine, and maybe if you have a particularly good spokesperson, maybe it’ll go pretty well. But some of the employers we’re working with have been really imaginative and creative about the possibilities you can get when all of a sudden you don’t have to worry about geography or schedule the availability ’cause you can just get somebody to jump on the line.

0:15:14.1 MK: For instance, they’ve had CEOs of Fortune 500 companies actually do prospective student talks, which would not typically happen. And they’ve had… They’ve been able to draw some really interesting early career real employees to participate from parts of the company. They were all across the country who we never would have been able to bring together who… Able to tell these really compelling stories, which are irreplaceable in their authenticity.

0:15:46.0 MK: You can hear from the HR person, but it’s still very different when you hear from a real employee who’s a real person who can share their actual experiences. And so, I think… I believe that the employers that are gonna be the winners in connecting with, certainly with early career prospective and employees, are gonna be the ones who are imaginative and creative at using these new potential virtual approaches to bring a more vivid and rich and compelling experience to prospective students or prospective employers to students through these technologies.

0:16:27.2 MP: I would have loved to have seen a CEO pop onto a recruitment event that I had attended perhaps when I was in college. I mean, that would’ve tipped the scale a little bit and been like, “This is a place we work.” Look, they’re so interested, you have the CEO engaged. But to have that opportunity in the virtual space because of the breakdown that geography no longer plays the same role or schedules, I mean, we’re able to do the same thing. We jump on Zoom calls all the time in ways I used to jump on a plane, and to get to LaGuardia and I get on a plane, get somewhere. It was near impossible and took so much time out of life. You can do this so much faster.

0:16:57.2 MK: Yes. So it’s much more efficient. And one particular area where I think that’s gonna… I’m really hoping this is gonna make a difference is in supporting diversity goals in hiring. One of the biggest things that works against hiring diversity is the fact that employers tend to recruit at the same colleges year after year after year. And the reality is that if you want a more diverse candidate pool, you can’t stay as close to home. You can’t stay at the same colleges you’ve gone to year after year. You have to expand your footprint and that’s expensive. And if your constraint is what… You don’t have to hop on a plane. You only have a couple of people who can do this. You’re going to naturally figure out what the sweet spot is between your hiring needs and your travel ability, and it’s gonna cause some limits. But the thing that is really exciting about a more virtualized approach to recruitment is that employers can go to schools and to reach students who probably never heard from these employers before, never had the opportunity to engage in these nurturing events and awareness events, and therefore, likely never would have thought to apply.

0:18:06.4 MK: And I think it’s the, in the long run, it’s going to benefit students. It’s gonna benefit the colleges and it’s gonna benefit employers because we’re going to find talented people no matter where they are. And we’re going to support a lot of these companies who really do have serious goals to improve diversity and improve equity of opportunity. And so, I think that is a important advantage to that if companies pursue it, which will be headed for us.

0:18:34.6 MP: This is a little early, and you said in terms of outcomes in the overall hiring season, I’m curious if there have been any indicators that that has been successful. So that’s certainly on the part of the other side of this. On the learning side, we talk about the learning gap, the completion gap, and the equity gap in Higher Education that is somewhat linked to technology and the digital divide that we have seen. Students went to emergency about instruction, had to be forced online. There are a lot of challenges to being connected to your home university, being able to participate in classes in the same way. I’m just curious if that has also played a role as we virtualized recruitment or if they’ve been able to overcome some of those digital challenges in some ways to see some positive returns or positive changes in advance of those diversity goals for employers.

0:19:17.8 MK: It’s still early, as you said. Best indicators we have of the progress are the colleges that students originate from. Where we’ve seen the students participate in these virtual events, what we’ve done is to compare in previous years, the colleges that students come from when they go through the recruiting funnel, and this year where the college is… Where the students come from and they go through recruiting funnel. And we have seen very positive indicators of new colleges showing up, in essence, so employers are broadening their reach in ways that I don’t think they would have done in previous years. And it is because these webinars, these virtual events, make it much easier to scale, makes it easier to promote events to more students and to more colleges. So, we’re very, very optimistic.

0:20:16.5 MP: That’s good. That’s what we’re all hoping for in the larger goals of DEI initiatives on campus, but also for employers. I was thinking about, now, you may hear in the background or you might not, depending on the quality of this microphone, but you might hear the Long Island Rail Road, you might also hear you the many planes that go to JFK or LaGuardia, where I sit here on Long Island. Travel is increasing a little bit, but if we had been doing this in January or last year, you would have heard a non-stop sound of jet fumes and jets whining overhead. So travel is still there but not as much.

0:20:42.5 MP: Same thing, you talk about employers not necessarily having to travel to go to career fairs, do on-campus recruiting, go out there and sort of seek out potential employees. On the recruitment side as well, do employers care as much about the physical location of applicants anymore or where they’ll actually be working from? As we’ve all gone remote and as we’re thinking about the change to the workforce and remote work policies, work from home, is that still the same variable that it was before as they now seek students from a broader swathe of universities and institutions, or are there other factors that have now taken a stronger position when they’re considering applicants?

0:21:19.6 MK: The jury is still out on how employers are going to think about geography going forward. And you and I know that EAB has become an increasingly location-agnostic over the years, but my guess is that when the pandemic ends, that we will be in a different place than when we started. I’m sure that is true for most employers across the country and across the world. However, what I will say, which has struck me, is that most of the employers we’ve been working with are still deeply concerned with geography as they think about their hiring needs. And I think that it’s in part because many larger employers approach early career hiring in almost like a programmatic or coherent-based approach. It’s almost like having students enter a graduate program or something. You have a one- or two- or three-year rotational program or like a finance training program or an early career technology program.

0:22:21.3 MK: And what I see is that these employers still do value the physical proximity that is built by some of these programs that having the new employees on campus and inculcating them with the culture, and the, at least the experiences that come from people being around each other. And that way of thinking has not gone away, even in the middle of the pandemic. Obviously, they’ve had to pivot, and many of their summer internships, they still held, which was impressive, but held in a virtual or near virtual fashion. But everyone is expecting the pandemic to end at some point, and location to re-emerge and I say that as a real consideration, so it’d be interesting to continue watching.

0:23:12.7 MP: Moving on to both of your hats, both the employer side as well as the college university side, we always have a lot of listeners to the podcast that are university leaders and the question is more of what can schools do, what can those leaders do a little bit differently now to partner with employers more effectively? How can they help connect employers to their students in productive ways? And do you have any advice that we’d say for the college university leadership at this point of how they can work better with employers?

0:23:40.7 MK: Yeah, that’s something that we’ve given a fair amount of thought to. And it’s interesting because it is so different for different colleges across the country. For the telemarketing services initiative, we’ve been working with very large employers who tend to be quite selective both in number and in perceived academic quality for the colleges and universities they go to. And what we’ve heard from you is, from our college and university partners, is that it’s difficult if they’re not in that existing top tier of institutions to even get someone to return their calls, to find the right person to reach out, to connect, to make significant progress in attracting new employers to look at their students.

0:24:36.2 MK: And part of what I would say is that while it may have been challenging for many years to try to knock on doors and to get employees to engage, I feel like if there’s ever a time to do it, to redouble efforts, to create robust partnerships with employers, whether they are local or regional or national, this will be a great time to do it because employers are, as you mentioned, increasingly looking nationally to expand their scope of hiring. They have diversity goals that are more concrete in many cases than ever before. And my expectation is that in this time when in-person recruiting is largely on pause, that schools will find a more receptive audience than they had in the past for reaching out to employers to talk about how they can get their students engaged in this virtual recruiting world.

0:25:45.1 MP: Michael, one last question. It’s kind of moving beyond just the recruiting part of this and thinking a little bit more about onboarding, and we’ll run out with this one because I’m gonna get beyond that. It’s challenging enough, I think, to onboard a new employee right out of college, right out of university, into an organization, into the corporate world where maybe they didn’t have a lot of experience before. I’m curious how much more difficult that is now in the virtual environment or what you’ve seen out there to shift the onboarding into virtual that’s been successful there for employers and for the next phase of even how colleges, universities might think about preparing students in that pipeline for onboarding, you’re getting them a little bit more experience. I’m curious… Thoughts, reactions to what we’ve seen in the onboarding world and the start of work.

0:26:25.5 MK: What we’ve seen so far is that at least some employers are realizing that if they have to onboard employees virtually, it requires some of the same thinking as onboarding employees in person, so giving them both the necessary functional information to do their jobs, but also sharing the more intangible and important pieces of culture and strategy and connections and so forth, but you have to try twice as hard in the virtual world. And so some of the same teams that we work with on the early career recruitment are also responsible for the onboarding programs and the culturalization programs. And we have seen them. They are just working tirelessly to bolster their programming, knowing that it is going to be virtual to make sure that they are giving as much of a virtual experience as they possibly can to replace what is lost with the person to person.

0:27:28.7 MK: The other thing that I’ve seen though is that many employers are increasingly looking at the experience of… That they can give to full-time employees long before they become full-time employees. And so I’ve seen increased investment in internship programs to various kinds, of development programs, even shorter period opportunities, one-day programs, two-day programs, week-long sophomore programs because you actually have a different, and you might argue, lower onboarding burden versus to bring someone to the company if they are already familiar, if they worked there the summer before, if they’ve attended different programs, if they built an affinity over a longer time horizon. And I do see that as, again, one of the opportunities of virtualization is, in some ways, it’s easier to operate off of these micro-programs, just like we’re seeing certificate programs and other kind of experiences in some ways be easier in a virtual realm. The same thing is actually true for early employee experiences, and I think that’s an opportunity for the same.

0:28:42.8 MP: Alright. Michael, thank you so much for your commentary, your insights here, getting a little bit behind the curtain of what employers are thinking, how they’re recruiting, and certainly, the wake now in the shadow of COVID-19, as we get a little bit more in person, a little bit more on campus. But everyone has a lot of questions about employers, and I think your insights are extremely valuable at this point as campuses continue to see how do we engage employers and how do we make sure that we are working closely to set our students up for the best opportunities post-graduation. Thank you so much, Michael. I appreciate you coming on to the podcast today.

0:29:12.3 MK: Well, thanks for having me, Matt. I look forward to you coming back, reporting how things have developed across the next couple of months.

0:29:19.1 MP: Sounds great. Appreciate it. Thanks, Michael.


0:29:25.3 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us again next week as EAB’s Katherine Brown is joined by representatives from StreetWise Partners and the Urban Alliance to talk about getting your institution and your employees more actively involved in community service efforts. Until then, for Office Hours with EAB, I’m Matt Pellish.

Next, explore these related resources

EAB asks you to accept cookies for authorization purposes, as well as to track usage data and for marketing purposes. To get more information about these cookies and the processing of your personal information, please see our Privacy Policy. Do you accept these cookies and the processing of your personal information involved?