Online recruitment is key to grabbing great graduates

Set against the most severe recession of most people’s lifetimes, the 20th annual IRS graduate recruitment survey shows that online recruitment has become more important than ever as a tool to help employers reach top talent.

Online methods, such as an employer’s own website or external jobsites, remain the most common and effective ways of attracting good-quality graduate candidates, the IRS survey found. The current hiring round is a tough one for graduates, with demand waning slightly on the part of recruiters, combined with salary freezes for graduate hires. But the turbulent economic conditions do not make it an easy graduate recruiting ground for employers either – and do not necessarily make it any more straightforward to find top-quality talent.

Over the past few years, the pattern of employer demand for graduates has been on an upwards trajectory, mirroring the steady increase in the number of people graduating from university actively looking for work – around 185,000 each year. But while supply remains buoyant, employers’ demand for graduates in the current economic downturn appears to be waning. According to the latest Association of Graduate Recruiters’ survey, one-quarter of graduate vacancies have disappeared, and there are now an average of 48 applications for every vacancy.

Thom Staight, director at recruiter Michael Page HR, says online methods are the only way to handle graduate recruitment efficiently. “You’re dealing with such vast numbers of applicants, and it’s become more acute this year. If you have a good consumer brand, the number of applications you can get is frankly terrifying. With the best will in the world, the only way of effectively handling that number of applicants is by doing it online – you can’t do it with pieces of paper floating around everywhere.


“The attraction for the recruiter is not just that you can attract more candidates that way – you’re generally using a CV management tool as well. Some of our clients’ graduate recruitment teams used to be half-a-dozen-plus people. Those numbers have been reduced dramatically. It takes less human resource to do these things if you’re set up to do it properly online.”

According to the IRS survey, 72.3% of employers have tried to recruit graduates in the past, 63.8% are currently trying to recruit graduates, and 86.2% predict that they will in the future. This suggests that current demand has tailed off slightly but that, encouragingly, employers are optimistic of their demand for graduates increasing.

Anthony Pierce, HR practice leader at recruiter Hudson, says: “Certainly the actual numbers of graduate hires have declined, but larger cuts have been more where employers can save money – they are still investing in talent for the future. And we are still heavily recruiting for graduate recruiters.”

Staight adds: “People are certainly hiring fewer graduates, but there are also fewer companies recruiting who have completely cut their graduate schemes compared to last recession. The quality of some of the graduates is very high this year, much higher than in some previous years.

“At Michael Page, for example, we’ve hired far fewer graduates this year, but I have to say the quality of people we have seen has been really good. I think that’s because the organisations who would normally hoover up large numbers of quality graduates in other times are taking so few people this year.”


In terms of current demand, six in 10 (60%) employers that recruit graduates are taking on roughly the same number as before. A further quarter (25%) are recruiting fewer than before, while the remainder (15%) have increased their graduate intake.

The overwhelming reason for reducing the level of graduate recruitment is the economic situation. Others referred to a change of organisational strategy, while two employers said the reduction followed a decision to close their organisations’ graduate entry programmes.

There is a plethora of different attraction tools at the disposal of graduate recruiters, particularly with the ever-increasing sophistication and innovation offered by new technology. Using the internet, either the employer’s own corporate site or an external jobs board, has become indispensable to most employers. An overwhelming 79% of employers surveyed use an internet site run by the organisation, such as their own corporate site. And an external internet site that carries more than one organisation’s graduate vacancies, such as a job board, is used by 58% of organisations surveyed.

Gareth Jones, leader at recruiter Courtenay HR, says that while online recruitment is definitely here to stay, employers must bear in mind that it is constantly developing. “While it’s not just graduates that are using it, the important role they play is in the ‘next generation’ of online recruitment. There are a number of sites out there that graduates are playing with that are not on the radar of mainstream recruiters or HR. They’re not job sites, or social media sites as we understand them, but combinations of both.

“The way young people look for jobs and generally interact has a significant impact on the way recruitment develops. As a generation we rely heavily on e-mail, but I doubt that will be the same for graduates. Many no longer communicate via e-mail, indeed some universities no longer issue e-mail addresses as the graduates communicate via social media instead.”

Respondents were also asked to indicate which three attraction methods they rated as the most effective. With one exception, the top five most used methods are also the five considered the most effective by employers. For example, an internet site run by the organisation is the most popular method and also perceived as the most successful, by 37% of respondents. The exception is notifying vacancies to university careers services, an approach adopted by 70% of employers but ranked only seventh in the league of most-effective methods.


It is evident that a remote, online approach is perceived as the best way of appealing to potential graduate applicants, combined with the more personal, face-to-face method of participating in recruitment fairs.

The survey also showed that application methods are firmly online. Setting aside special provision for prospective candidates with disabilities, the most common way in which applications are accepted for graduate vacancies is in an online format. In line with the increasing sophistication evident in the use of e-recruitment, more than three-quarters (77%) of employers provide an electronic application process for prospective graduate applicants.

Other application methods currently in use include CVs (47% of employers); paper-based application forms (31%), and letters of application (25%). Some employers maintain both online and more traditional, paper-based application processes. For example, more than two-thirds of public sector employers (67%) allow paper-based applications, but a high proportion (78%) also operate online systems.

Paul Duffield, a partner at recruiter Frazer Jones, warns that online recruitment requires as careful planning and execution as traditional methods. “Online recruitment is here to stay,” he says. “But employers need to make sure they have the resource to provide the service at the back end of it. If there is an employer brand loud and proud on a website, and someone applies for a job and gets no response or acknowledgement, it can harm that brand.

“The recession has meant a load more applicants, and while there are plenty of decent ones in there, equally those that aren’t deemed decent need to be dealt with decently. Recruiters and clients alike are both guilty of not sometimes dealing with candidates in the right way. There is an art to online recruitment as much as there is to the traditional methods.”

IRS graduate recruitment survey: key points

  • IRS’s 20th annual graduate recruitment survey was conducted in September 2009, and involved 130 employers collectively employing more than 1.6 million people.
  • Starting salaries were frozen between 2008 and 2009, according to the median (midpoint in the range).
  • The median starting in 2009-10 is £24,000. Starting salaries are not keeping pace with increases in pay and earnings as a whole.
  • Current demand for graduates has tailed off slightly but employers are optimistic of their demand increasing in the future.
  • Online methods, such as an employer’s own website, remain the most common and effective ways of attracting good-quality candidates.
  • Assessment centres are widely seen as the best approach for selecting new graduate recruits, followed by interviews.
  • More than one-third of respondents indicated that they had encountered problems with graduate recruitment over the past two to three years, with the main issue being poor-quality candidates.

The full survey results and analysis will available on from Monday 16 November.

Most effective attraction method (1998-2009)

  • 1998-99 Vacancy directories/bulletins
  • 2000-01 Vacancy directories/bulletins
  • 2001-02 Vacancy directories/bulletins
  • 2002-03 Campus visits (eg milk round)
  • 2003-04 Campus visits (eg milk round)
  • 2004-05 Sponsored students
  • 2005-06 National newspaper advertisements
  • 2006-07 Internet site that carries more than one organisation’s graduate vacancies
  • 2007-08 Internet site run by/for the organisation
  • 2008-09 Internet site run by/for the organisation
  • 2009-10 Internet site run by/for the organisation

Source: IRS annual graduate recruitment surveys

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