It’s time to treat internal talent like campus hires

Use existing infrastructure to create equitable opportunities for all employees.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know talent is hard to come by right now.

Despite macroeconomic trends and a fluctuating economy, unemployment continues to hover around 3.7 percent, the lowest in half a century. We saw rates relatively close to this pre-pandemic. In that moment, employers decided to ramp up campus recruiting as a way of harvesting a larger talent pool.

Because early career college grads need to “learn the ropes” of a corporate environment, this well-known practice of campus recruiting is often paired with development programs that include stretch projects, department rotations, social networking and mentorships.

It’s a talent strategy with many benefits. Unfortunately, it also lacks equity and gets costly.

This recruiting and development philosophy gives the social capital for promotion and leadership to folks who likely already have means to access college degrees. In fact, college graduation rates from Americans in the top quartile by wealth are 4x higher than those in the lowest quartile. Sadly, this traditional view of campus programs ignores the existing talent and capabilities from within the walls of the organization. Right now, you have dozens — if not hundreds or even thousands — of existing employees who understand the business. These employees have built internal relationships and have managed to reskill through tuition assistance and other robust development programs within your company. Given the same preferential access, processes, and programs, reskillers and upskillers would demonstrate the same value add to the organization with less overhead.

Accelerating trends

While ramping up campus recruiting seems like a potential solution to constrained talent supply, there’s another factor that makes a dependency on external campus recruiting a risk: expected college enrollment declines. It’s not that college enrollment declines were completely unanticipated. Consistent with the fall in birthrate since the 2008 recession, there was an expectation that we would fall off of an “enrollment cliff” of nearly 15 percent after 2025. Unfortunately, that cliff seems to have arrived far earlier than expected due to the pandemic. In fact, the National Student Clearinghouse recently shared that undergrad enrollment has fallen for the fifth semester in a row, with 1.2 million fewer students. The worst news yet is that the demographics in that decline are hitting Black students the hardest, with a 6.5 percent decline in freshman enrollment year over year.

If the tightening of the talent pool wasn’t enough justification for rethinking campus recruiting and development, employees have become increasingly aware of the inequities built into the systems they participate in each day at work.

It turns out anchoring your hiring policies and practices to a higher education system where historically marginalized communities are systemically disadvantaged might also bring with it a continuing cycle of a lack of representation in ranks for leadership that come from campus recruiting and development programs. According to a study by the department of education, within any given cohort, degree completion is half as likely among Black and LatinX students than White students. In fact, making a Bachelor’s degree a requirement reduces the diversity of your talent pool dramatically, since 75 percent of Black Americans and 80 percent of LatinX Americans don’t hold degrees today.

Large organizations should not pin their hopes for future talent on a shrinking and more competitive campus recruiting strategy. It’s critical to build an alternative for future talent pools sourced internally and put the same infrastructure around seeing them succeed.

Expanding, advancing and scaling career mobility

Progress starts by taking what you already do and applying it in a new way.

Faced with difficulties like a historic labor shortage and a dramatic decrease in college enrollment, companies can alleviate the talent crisis by implementing the familiar techniques and resources dedicated to campus recruitment and development and expanding or redirecting that energy toward reskilling internal workers. With the infrastructure already in place, the lift won’t be as laborious — rotation programs, networking events and peer-to-peer mentoring can easily be mirrored internally.

In addition, creating more “gateway” roles that allow folks to pursue certain careers but have limited formal education is vital. It provides career advancement opportunities into high-skill and destination roles, helps create mobility at scale for companies, and addresses talent issues in the long term. While some companies aren’t willing to share their goals externally yet, we’re seeing organizations set targets to fill their campus hiring goals with graduates from their existing education benefits programs. In some organizations, that goal exceeds 50 percent.

When such a program is applied to internal talent, the benefits are clear. Employees are empowered. They know they have the support of their company to train and explore different roles that will move them to the next level of their careers. For companies, they will be able to retain and develop talent with workers who already know how the companies work, onboarding times are shorter, and interactions with managers responsible for overseeing hiring roles are already underway.

Building equity into the process

Expanding recruitment programs to frontline workers also helps make the hiring process more equitable and inclusive. Day to day, the current roles frontline workers hold may not allow much interaction with corporate or higher-level managers. By mirroring campus recruiting events, though, these employees have the opportunity to broaden their networks, make the right social connections, seek mentorship, and familiarize themselves with different roles in the company that they might not have otherwise known about.

Meanwhile, rather than “buying” their way out of a talent issue externally, managers and executives can cultivate a culture of opportunity for all workers. They are exposed to and can help develop a deep pool of talent within their walls, talent that has already shown a desire and willingness to grow and develop to advance their own careers.

To regard these employees as their own “target school” within a campus recruiting system, companies must actively market training and job opportunities to current workers — or at least do their best not exclude them.

For example, instead of seeking only candidates from a campus recruitment program, make it clear in a job title and description that recent graduates of training or certification programs are also welcome to apply.

Companies can also open more entry-level positions and use language that clarifies if a job requires no experience in the field. You can consider rotational programs, but companies need to make it explicit about what is and is not guaranteed during the job’s duration so working adult learners can weigh the risks. Also, given that standard timelines for campus programs can be up to 12 months in advance, existing employees would need an explainer on the lag between interviewing for future roles, decision making and when their new start date would be.

Most importantly, reexamine how managers evaluate entry-level candidates for certain positions. Campus recruiters typically view previous internship experience and campus leadership and involvement as important on a resume. This may be drastically different for a non-traditional working adult student. How might recruiters look at frontline experience in the same way they look at traditional student internship experience and campus leadership? What skills and accomplishments would be transferable?

Opportunities for all capable talent

When low wage workers were asked what would induce them to stay at their company, 62 percent indicated the prospect of upward mobility. Frontline employees and working adult learners want to develop their skills and advance their careers within their own companies. They do not, however, always have the opportunities to do so. Oftentimes, they ask the same question recent school and program graduates ask themselves when applying for jobs: “How do I get experience without experience?”

Fortunately, companies are in a position to create such opportunities for their workers, while also solving for their own talent needs. They can drive retention across the organization by putting infrastructure in place that gives employees the prospect of upward mobility. By leveraging campus recruiting and development processes and programs, which are highly functioning and well resourced, companies can wield an existing framework and expand it to internal talent while also driving a more equitable and inclusive culture. These programs will put existing employees on the fast track to gain the experience they need, land better jobs in high-priority areas and make more money. And when these frontline workers are given the same preferential access to internships and entry-level job opportunities as campus hires, a culture of opportunity can truly flourish.