Why you should care

If you want to hire college grads, senior year may be too late.

On move-in day at Michigan State University’s College of Engineering, freshmen and their parents discover something surprising. Mingling among the families and faculty are teams of volunteers from major companies like General Electric and Consumers Energy, helping students move in. Even more surprising, there’s a good chance the person schlepping futons up four flights of stairs is a vice president or chief engineer. That’s how hard employers are working to develop relationships with students from day one.

“Large companies used to feel they could go to the career fair and hire 30 seniors and get top talent,” says Jason Weingarten, co-founder and CEO of Yello, a Chicago-based startup that builds talent-acquisition software. “Now students have been picked away through internships, externships, faculty referrals — when you get to senior year, the cream of the crop is gone.”

The whole idea is to create a career education experience that feels baked into student life, not ringed off and intimidating.

That doesn’t mean employers are turning up on the first day of freshman year and asking for résumés. “Showing up simply as a recruiter is not going to work in today’s environment,” says Farouk Dey, dean of experiential education at Stanford University, where he oversees BEAM (Bridging Education, Ambition & Meaningful Work) career education. “Engaging in campus activities, serving as a partner and educator — those are some of the smartest things an employer can do.” Especially since, as Dey points out, students have a lot of options. They might go to graduate school, join the gig economy, even drive for Lyft for six months before traveling. Companies have to work hard to get them.

So what does this look like? Well, take General Electric. The 125-year-old corporate giant is now using virtual reality to showcase its products and technology on campus and hosting hackathons as a way to connect with students. GE reps also mentor undergraduates and run résumé workshops — all very different from a guy in a tie shaking your hand from a kiosk at the senior year career fair.

Companies that can’t send armies of recruiters are finding ways to compete too. Yello’s mobile app allows employers to track students who show interest at an event, giving organizations information on which campuses they do well on. Then, through a digital platform, they invite students to next steps: interviews, applications or — the golden ticket — an internship offer. Social media amplifies their reach as well.

Meanwhile, universities are also rethinking their approach to career services. Garth Motschenbacher, director of employer relations at MSU College of Engineering, has his team sit in a bullpen and hires students — “career peers” — to work the front desk, so that all initial engagement with employers and students goes through them. A career consultant is embedded in the college, serving as a direct link between engineering students and the MSU Career Services Network. Formality is ditched as well; instead, employers are invited for informal meet-ups. “I realized if I put ‘business casual’ on an event, students froze,” says Motschenbacher. “The more casual you make things, the more students start letting their hair down and talking about what they really want.”

The whole idea is to create a career education experience that feels baked into student life, not ringed off and intimidating. And it starts early. At MSU’s Freshman Extravaganza, a résumé-free event for engineering students and employers, many first-years have never interacted with a company before. “I came for the free food,” says Arielle Tolbert, now a junior majoring in computer engineering who’s already locked in a summer internship. “But it was great exposure. I realized what skills I was lacking and that I needed to work on my elevator speech. I also got to know employers.”

Of course, a lot of the college experience is lost if students spend four years thinking about how to land a job. Part of the problem is massive student debt. Undergrads worried about paying back six figures “aren’t thinking about what sorority to join or making friends,” says Weingarten. “They’re thinking, how am I going to pay this back?” And internships, especially at top tech firms, are pretty lucrative. (Many pay upward of $6,000 per month.) Which brings up another issue: Early recruiting tends to favor STEM students and chokes off other paths of study, like liberal arts.

Many educators understand this risk. At MSU, engineering students are required to take humanities classes. Colleges and universities such as George Mason, Miami University of Ohio, Stanford and William & Mary are pivoting from transactional, brick-and-mortar career centers to an embedded, community approach. And while Dey acknowledges that some would say any kind of freshman/sophomore career education pushes students too early toward vocational thinking, “We’re not here to talk to freshmen about what job they should have when they graduate,” he says. “We want to know what they value in life and what kind of impact they want to have on their community.”

As part of the shift from job placement to career education, Stanford students interested in similar things — a specific major, say, or the nonprofit sector or working in a creative field — come together in community settings and interact with alums and employers. And while Stanford’s largest student/employer meet-up hosts about 300 employers and thousands of students, it isn’t called a career fair. “We have photo booths, party tricks — lots of activities that force you to get to know each other,” Dey says.

The idea is to create connections that increase a student’s chances of stumbling in front of that lucky moment at the right time. Because behind every dream job, there’s usually a mix of perfect timing and happenstance. Maybe in 10 years we’ll have an app for that too.

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