NACE Journal, November 2018
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
--From “The Big Short”
Back in 2008, I first presented research findings that challenged what, at the time, was a commonly accepted fact: that college students expected and valued employers’ connecting with them on personal social media platforms, e.g. Facebook.
It didn’t go well.
Employers were not particularly interested in hearing that what they believed was a logical and actionable assumption—i.e., 94 percent of students are on Facebook, so that’s where we need to connect with them—was, indeed, not at all what most students expected or valued and was, in fact, in stark contrast to what they preferred, then as now.
Over the ensuing decade, the drumbeat of marketing and vendor pronouncements of how to recruit Millennials (and now Gen Z), typically framed by the same widely held assumptions loosely attributed to data, have gained so much traction that research I present to the contrary is often met with slack-jawed disbelief. Let me state for the record that I have no vested interest in what students value (or don’t) regarding what strategies, tools, and techniques employers use to recruit them: I simply report what campus candidates tell me and have done so since the 1990s.
The objective of this Op-Ed is to define what I consider to be a significant challenge for our profession these days: the disconnect between the current conventional wisdom of what students prefer by way of recruitment practices—and how they actually view some popular tools and techniques. I will provide examples of relevant data points that are published online and offer counterbalancing takeaways from my ongoing research with university students. It is their voices, consistent and unwavering, that motivated me to write this piece.
Connecting the Wrong Dots
The overarching theme in the decade-long lack of congruence between what employers seem to believe students value as recruitment practices and what the data show maps to a significant misread of how generational traits (real or imagined) impact their expectations and preferences as candidates. To wit:
Social media: College students’ use of personal social media platforms continues to evolve, ranging from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and Snapchat, but one thing has remained constant: With a few candidate persona exceptions, e.g. communications majors and students interested in retail, their strong preference has been that employers limit their virtual engagement with them to using LinkedIn during the job-search process. Indeed, that needle has moved over the past decade as students learn to use—and have success with—this online professional networking tool. Scott Resource Group (SRG) surveys and focus group commentary clearly document how students differentiate between their use of personal social media platforms and LinkedIn and how these students are genuinely confused as to why employers don’t understand why the latter is an acceptable communication channel, while the former is one they consider, well, personal.
Indeed, some employers have come to recognize that all the hype about using social media to recruit students has not played out as anticipated. A report I wrote earlier this year for the NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition cited social media as one of the sourcing channels that had been eliminated by employers currently satisfied with their hiring results.1 That finding reminded me of an e-mail I received from an employer a few years ago on this very point:
“I feel like we knew that students felt this way about [personal social media platforms] vs. LinkedIn, and yet we allowed our companies to build an entirely new multi-billion dollar industry around [personal social media] recruiting based on a bandwagon mentality rather than true, data-driven market research... wow!
Despite this, it is easy to find information that shows Facebook, Snapchat, and/or Instagram (among others) as more popular with students than LinkedIn. For those engaged in campus recruiting, the question should never be which channels students use, but rather which they value and use as part of their job search. Misunderstanding fuels misinformation and vice versa.
Text Messages: One of the biggest disconnects between what employers have been led to believe and student sentiment concerns the e-mail-versus-text debate.
It is true that the age group targeted for recruiting uses texting, but the suggestion that students expect and prefer this mode of communication with employers is not. Year-over-year SRG findings point to quite the opposite: Students consider e-mail to be “the language of business,” and routinely remark that it would be “creepy” (and/or “skeeve them out”) to receive an unsolicited text from an employer because they consider texts to be a personal and very informal communication tool. Once a relationship with a recruiter has been established, some students will opt-in to use text messaging, but the looks on the faces in focus groups when I raise the topic of receiving an unsolicited text speak volumes. And the word students use most often to describe the practice is “inappropriate.”
Use of Mobile Devices: Equally surprising to many employers is the year-over-year SRG finding that students overwhelmingly (i.e., 96+ percent) prefer to apply for positions using their laptop rather than a mobile device. Why? Because many employers have heard/read that most job seekers are “likely to use a mobile device during their job search.” In reality, students are almost unanimous in their preference for using the laptop because it greatly diminishes the likelihood of making an error in completing the online form. To quote one University of Texas – Austin student, “I use my phone to order a sandwich, not to apply for a job.”
Video Interviews: The growing use of video interviewing platforms, both two-way, such as Skype, and digitally recorded/asynchronous, has clearly benefitted employers in terms of saving budget and people resources. That aside, the “opportunity cost” side of the equation—that is, what students routinely describe as a significantly compromised candidate experience—should not be measured against claims that are not linked to the application process (e.g., that a majority of candidates appreciate the opportunity video interviewing gives them to “differentiate themselves”) without an unbiased assessment.
Students understand that employers can screen far more candidates, for a fraction of the cost, but framing a video interview as their enthusiastic preference flies in the face of the findings of every study I’ve conducted over the past several years—and, again, I have no horse in this race.
How to Vet Data Sources
Public Domain Data: Most of what is widely reported on the Internet specific to university relations and recruiting is considered public domain, in that it is not copyright protected. While this provides an enormous amount of data for employers to consider as they plan campus strategy and execution, there is a related downside: The findings often imply that a vendor’s offering will solve whatever issue the employer is tackling. Great marketing, to be sure, but caveat emptor (“buyer beware”). Consider the source.
Here are two suggestions when evaluating the reliability of public domain data:
- Follow the money: Is there a linkage between the data being presented and the “solution”? Be sure the data being presented can be independently verified and authenticated and are not rooted in broad-brush generational assumptions.
- Match the survey cohort to the employer’s target population: Many third-party service providers survey students who use their platform, which makes sense from an expediency standpoint. The caution here is to evaluate the profile of the service provider’s student respondents in comparison with the employer’s hiring personas. There can be an “echo chamber” effect of a closed-system when the survey group is sourced entirely from the provider’s subscribers, and response bias is a decided pitfall in gathering actionable data to apply across larger candidate populations, i.e., those who do not have an account with the provider.
Commissioned/Fee-Based Research: Given the ubiquity of online survey and focus group tools, there are many organizations that offer commissioned and fee-based research these days, not to mention the widespread employer use of a DIY survey approach.
Here are a few considerations in assessing the reliability and applicability of such data:
- What are the qualifications of those building the survey instruments? A lack of expertise in writing questions or probing focus group responses can easily result in skewed findings. Effective research design and execution depend on the credentials and experience of those fielding the research. The tools simply provide a vehicle to gather data and do not replace subject matter expertise.
- Question the methodology: How, specifically, is the research fielded? Scratch the surface. Kick the tires. Are the participants consistent with your targeted students and sourcing channels? Remember the old IT adage: GIGO = Garbage In, Garbage Out.
- How are research participants sourced? In addition to the “echo chamber” issue described above, it is critical to understand how an organization is identifying research participants; having a randomized population that represents the greater population is, of course, the goal of valid research, but “randomized” does not mean “haphazard.”
- How is data integrity managed? Is the survey instrument encrypted, or is it available on a public URL where anyone can access it? How are the data scrubbed? It is hardly surprising that some students submit bogus (and multiple) entries, especially when an incentive to participate is offered. Beware of “dirty data.”
- What are the credentials of those analyzing the data? There is an interesting article published by McKinsey Analytics that discusses the critical roles of both “nerds” and “experts” in formulating strategy based on research.2 The consultants’ point, simply stated, is that one needs to apply a healthy dose of skepticism that is rooted in expertise when analyzing metrics. (To quote: “Data is not a religion.”) One absent the other can very easily lead to flawed conclusions and ill-advised strategic direction-setting.
Data Points Feed a Faulty Premise
Despite some of the examples offered in this Op-Ed, the problem with what is being presented as recruiting preference research these days isn’t so much the claims vendors may use to sell products and services; that is to be expected.
Rather, the overarching issue is that there is a compelling narrative that is built on a faulty premise—that students expect and value all things digital throughout their job search, and that it is how they measure the “coolness” (and therefore the desirability) of employers. Nothing could be farther from the truth—and I make this statement based on what students tell me, not only through their survey ratings and live focus group commentary, but also by their very reaction to the questions I pose in discussions. I have compiled a handout that lists representative retorts to the conventional wisdom about students’ attitudes specific to using technology throughout the recruitment process, and the common theme is best summed up by this Berkeley senior: “There's no need to go overboard with the technology, and doing so can make the company seem like it's trying to connect with the ‘younger generation’ while not really understanding it.”
It is students themselves who identified the notion that employers are “trying too hard to be cool” and consistently push back against the commonly held assumptions that they are attracted to employers’ use of social media, texting, video, and virtual tools, with more than a few making a disparaging comparison to their parents’ attempts to be “hip.” What this illustrates is that the seemingly dogmatic belief that what students use in their personal lives is therefore how they want their recruitment experience to unfold is simply wrong. Among the characteristics of Gen Z that most work force cohort experts predict is their valuing of transparency, authenticity, and relationships. Moreover, students will argue that technology-based recruitment tools and techniques provide none of these valued attributes—in fact, quite the opposite.
In defense of employers that assume a sales pitch is the same as data-driven research, it is hard to argue with what we see all around us: Millennials and Gen Z obviously live in a tech-enabled world. It is easy to connect the wrong dots in terms of what works best in recruiting. However—and despite the fact that I’ve been called both “the skunk at the garden party” and “a voice crying in the wilderness” on this topic for a decade—I remain convinced that employers are missing the proverbial boat on what today’s students do indeed value. (Spoiler alert!) It is personal contact.
1 Scott, Mary. Effectiveness of Recruiting Timing and Techniques. NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition, May 2018.
2 Kirkland, Rik, and Dan Wagner. “The role of expertise and judgment in a data-driven world.” McKinsey Analytics. May 2017. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-analytics/our-insights/the-role-of-expertise-and-judgment-in-a-data-driven-world