Image credit: hosping.com

Very much as an extension of our work helping universities attract prospective students, we’re now supporting Glaxo Smith Kline at graduate careers fairs. GSK are looking for top university talent to employ or enrol into their graduate schemes after the cloaks and mortar boards have been packed away.

Seduction in the recruitment bottleneck

To unweave the rainbow a little, we need to consider what graduate career fairs are actually for. Simplistically condensed, we arrive at a bottleneck, either side of which are graduates needing jobs and companies needing graduates. What could possibly go wrong in such a quagmire of mutual need?

Graduate careers fairs are not interviews; the companies running the stands don’t know who’s going to stop by in advance. And it’s possible that the students might not know which stands they’re going to attend in advance. In this sense, a careers fair shares the feel of speed dating with the university recruitment fairs. They are an opportunity to sell the idea of ‘working with us’, with practical and expert advice on what the company does and how, where and why it does it. If it seems like a good match, students can discover routes into the business, including prestigious graduate schemes.

As with all exhibitions, the main benefit over alternative interactions is that this is face-to-face meeting, a fleshing out of concepts and a fledgeling relationship guided by the precious principles of human engagement. There is pressure here; for students to create a good impression and for the company representatives to sell the corporate idea. The former makes the latter a great deal easier.

Inside the bottleneck, a subtle process of filtration is in play. Whether consciously or subconsciously, recruiters are gathering data about candidates and sorting them into echelons of suitability. That sounds rather sinister, but at this stage it is likely to be as benign as compiling a list of candidates ‘we hope will apply’. The stakes being as high as they are though, and in the era of big data and AI, most recruiters are now using data capture in more proactive ways to later nurture a relationship they hope will lead the candidate toward them and away from competitors. Some of them even remain GDPR-compliant as they do so.

So in that sense, the onus is on the graduate to seduce the recruiter, and the students who’ve done their homework and treat the meeting as an informal (albeit important) interview will generate a positive reaction. But in every other sense, a graduate careers fair is all about the recruiting company doing the seduction.

The millennial graduate

…maybe corporations should change everything about the way they do business in order to accommodate the demands of the millennial generation. Nope, didn’t think so.

In 3-4 years’ time, graduates leaving university will have been born after the Millennium. The future of UK businesses post-Brexit will depend on this cohort. Just to clarify, we’re going to use the term ‘millennials’ in this post to describe people born after or just before the Millennium. Technically, this cohort is usually referred to as ‘Generation Z’ (or Gen Z, iGeneration, Homeland Generation, Centennials, Generation Sensible, and Post-Millennials). But the issues we’re going to describe are the same or extensions of those affecting Generation Y, so we’re going to be lazy and lump them all together.

Graduates face stark choices when first dipping their toes into the job pool. Just as their previous GCSE, A’Level and higher education choices formed key solidifiers of educational direction, the decision of with whom to entrust their choice of first job will have a massive impact on their subsequent careers.

Undergraduates would obviously love to land their dream job, although working out what that might be through the cataract of alcoholic over-indulgence and hormonal turmoil is a challenge in itself. Drive and ambition are often late developers in the human clay of a 21-year-old’s character, and it occasionally frustrates tutors and parents alike that some students seem to expect direction and opportunity to seep by osmosis from their social media interactions or simply fall from the sky.

This has always been the case to some degree, but it is well-documented that the millennial generation may be tech-savvy and more globalist, but they also have an unprecedented level of entitlement. That might (if one is being generous) inject some efficient networking methods and self-confidence into the post-Brexit landscape of employment. More realistically, however, it has the potential to cause friction with existing work ethics, workflows, cultures and structures of the business world. The deep end is going to to be deeper than ever unless the recruiter happens to be seeking social media executives.

Millennials will hopefully have had some training in how to suppress some of this entitlement in interviews, since it is built on narcissism and points to a poor work ethic. Success may depend on a more conservative projection of self. Self-confidence is necessary in interviews, but narcissism is ugly. Knowledge is impressive, but nobody likes a know-it-all. Humility is endearing, but your future employer is unlikely to be looking for a shrinking violet. Humour hints at the kind of amiability useful in teamwork, but cracking jokes would constitute over-egging the pudding. As with many things in life, balance is the key here.

Interviewees should try to appreciate employers’ thirst for young people able to assimilate an existing work culture. That means demonstrating the maturity of character to be a positive force in a team environment, not an easy trick to pull off for a work-shy millennial. ‘Fitting in’ and ‘learning the ropes’ are assimilation skills these green graduates will need to acquire with speed, because they’ll find that corporate enterprise has multilayered objectives and a refined environment to support achieving them. A solution is derived from a solid appreciation of the problem.

If new or soon-to-be graduates have their heads screwed on, they will have a strong impression of where they’d like to work in advance. Careers advice aside, this ought to rely on a huge amount of research; converting the abstract ideas of coursework theory into the concrete practical endeavours of industry. Choosing which industry suits them may be as hard without real experience as refining a list of leading companies down to the few that might realistically be suitable.

Persuading students that this research is even necessary is a fairly thankless task. Notions of a ‘good career’ hinge largely at this stage on securing a salary able to service their debt and some car insurance. And if they have any spare time within their busy social calendar, they’ll probably prioritise actually finishing the course so that their long-suffering parents don’t suffocate them with disappointment. All those desperate 4am assignment scribblings and the impending dissertation deadline therefore have a tendency to trump idealistic projections of where I’d like to be in five years’ time.

So maybe the best thing a millennial graduate could do to stand out from the crowd is to drop some of the stereotypical traits of a millennial. Simply masking them would be too temporary a solution. Business is about making profit, which stems from productivity, so the ‘avoiding hard work’ bit needs to go. The ‘needing to feel special’, ‘getting rewarded for everything’, ‘refusing to acquiesce’ and ‘believing everyone’s opinions are equally valid’ bits aren’t too appealing to employers either. Millennials will not denature themselves, so we recommend a government programme similar to that used in the X-Men movies to forcibly remove mutant abilities.

Alternatively, maybe corporations should change everything about the way they do business in order to accommodate the demands of the millennial generation. Nope, didn’t think so. We can postpone that seismic shift until the millennials are the ones doing the recruiting. Then they can all feel really special rewarding mediocrity. This time bomb is as credible a threat to business as Brexit. Let’s call it a Millennial Bug.

As a conclusion to this part of the story, it seems apt to give a positive nudge to the concept of university sandwich courses. For those to whom this sounds alien, a sandwich course is one where an extra year is slotted into the student’s course, usually as the penultimate. This year is spent working in industry, earning a wage (albeit usually a reduced one) before returning to complete the final year with (hopefully) more ambition and direction for the dissertation. So in essence, it’s a mini-apprenticeship. Of course, finding the right placement can itself be tricky, but the universities maintain strong connections with industry in order to facilitate suitable settings for each student.

If students flourish on their sandwich year, they find they already have a compelling foot in the door, and some will secure a return to the placement company with relative ease once their studies are finished. But the key advantage to the student is that they learn what life is like in a real job. Just as university itself acts as a helpful cushion between life at home with parents and few responsibilities to the stark realities of going solo, the sandwich year is a slightly softened introduction to work. Furthermore, having experienced it for real, the student is much clearer about what to do (and what not to do) after graduation.

Defining the monster

…diffusing the precise shape of the perfect candidate into a homogenous blob…

Without getting too deep into the psychology of job interviews in general, there are certain universal truths with the process. One of the main differences for graduate programmes is that for many of the candidates, this will be their first experience of proper interviews. So they have not yet built up the comfort offered by familiarity or the resilience drawn from failures. They haven’t yet refined their own interview techniques, so will go into the process wondering what’s going to come out of their own mouths and how their bodies will react to the situation.

The recruiting company is looking for different things to the student, despite the successful partnership they both hope to initiate. Yes, qualifications are important, and of course passing a relevant degree is already a very positive signal. But all things being equal, the company is likely to focus on candidates with a certain character, since it is well understood that new graduates can’t hit the ground running. A gap in skillset is not the deal-breaker it would be for a regular job interview. Graduate programmes are looking for mouldable talent, and they accommodate the rawness of inexperience in their schemes. In other words, personality is an unusually strong pointer to suitability here.

So the HR departments at companies running these programmes face a real challenge with new graduates; to assess character (a fluid concept at the best of times) and match it to a desired profile (a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of personality traits cherry-picked by committee).

The scope for getting this wrong is huge, even assuming the employer understands what the their monster looks like. The character of a candidate can be discerned in an interview, but even this causes a natural lean towards people able to remember a bunch of pertinent anecdotes whilst consistently exuding confidence in a terrifyingly unnatural situation. The number of candidates rejected before this point in the name of refining the pool is necessarily high, so even slightly whacky (or ‘characterful’) CVs get binned before the assessor even finds out what their made up hobbies were.

The candidate can easily become a confused bunny caught in corporate headlights. They know the recruiter wants them to be truthful, but what version of the truth should they reveal or concoct? Even years of practice maintaining an idealised version of themselves on social media channels cannot prepare them for this because employers are not impressed by the same things as their BFF. In reality, forward-thinking recruiters will have already trolled their candidates’ social profiles. This is not simply to weed out the irredeemables; it also demonstrates elements of persona. Avatars are false yet revealing.

Neither can the candidate be absolutely sure what the recruiter is looking for, even if it spells it out in the graduate programme spec. They have to make a judgement by reading between the lines, a skill relying on both experience and empathy. For seasoned professionals, the wordplay and jargon that HR love to smear all over a job description is fairly easy to interpret. It’s a normalised, diluted version of what the line manager wanted them to say, diffusing the precise shape of the perfect candidate into a homogenous blob in the centre of some overlapping circles on a Powerpoint slide. There is a certain grotesque logic to this, since HR want a list of fifty candidates, not just one.

For the candidate, the end result of all this uncertainty is that even the best actor and suppressor of nerves can horribly misjudge how to present themselves on their CV, in interview and in the way they complete psychometric tests. Trying to second-guess exactly what is sought leads to the loss of self, or at least projects it through through a splintered lens. This inevitably tarnishes the sheen of authenticity, which is something interviewers warm to. That’s why it pays to be genuine, which paradoxically contradicts our earlier assertion that millennials should ‘de-millennialise’ themselves. Corporations employing millennials will have to regularly wrestle with such absurdities.

The payoff

…graduate programmes secure the backbone of a future management team…

So why not just recruit people who can hit the ground running? Why focus a significant proportion of a company’s recruitment resources on raw graduates with no experience of the company, the industry or work in general? This is clearly not a catalyst of short-term return on investment. The brightest will undoubtedly pick things up quickly, and amongst the herd of graduates, one or two stars of the future will emerge given the right encouragement. It may be more expensive to attract such a talent from outside later. But again, that lacks the certainty demanded by such a large investment.

The real benefits of getting this process right are in the long-term, and are not necessarily easy to quantify in terms of ROI. Graduate schemes are a fast-track environment for future leaders – the people who will be driving the business forward in five and ten years’ time. The schemes can therefore afford to be rewarding in scope and remuneration in order to encourage retention, and necessarily so; it would be a mistake to invest in raw talent only to allow it to bolster a competitor on reaching maturity. Sometimes outside appointments are exactly what a company needs, but graduate programmes secure the backbone of a future management team already well-versed in the specific dynamics of the business.

On balance, this means that larger companies with the kind of structure that supports internal advancement have to take this seriously. Having the right people in leadership roles clearly helps to achieve the overall aims of the company, fortify its direction of travel and add the kind of stability beloved by shareholders. If these leaders have risen internally through the ranks, this effect is amplified further by their loyalty. They tend to be more invested in the company’s success as well as their own. That might sound like a double-dose of self-interest, but it’s actually the opposite. It’s not exactly altruism, but loyalty is one of the best things a company could hope for from its executives.

So knowing what kind of graduate to attract is a vital endeavour in securing the future prosperity of the company. The desired character traits of Frankenstein’s monster should therefore have been refined over many years of running these programmes. It’s mainly a qualitative initiative, and each company’s monster is bespoke depending on their individual culture and the environment in which it operates. The fact that the environment changes means the monster must evolve too, so companies need to re-employ Dr Frankenstein with regularity.

Just like vampires, a monster is likely to hang around for a while once they’ve been invited in. Defining which monsters to invite will always be an important part of graduate recruitment. The particular problems that millennials might bring to the party might just require an adjustment here, a tightening in definition there. Going back to the corporate bottleneck, we see that businesses will have to decide whether to use a soft or a hard filter. Sounds familiar.

Exhibition stands at graduate careers fairs

…every flock has a bellwether…

So we come to the aspect of graduate recruitment with which we at Rounded Edge Studio can facilitate the meeting of suitable graduates with suitable employers. Millennial, meet monster. Monster, millennial.

Please remember that we’re not calling companies monsters; it’s just a metaphor for a company’s desired profile for their graduate prospects. So if anything, we’re calling millennials monsters, which is obviously much less controversial. And it’s nearly Hallowe’en, so maybe we’ll get away with it.

Recruitment or graduate careers fairs are, like any other exhibition, a means of getting a prospect in direct contact with a supplier. They benefit from centrality, and just like the classic economic imperative that makes competing shoe shops cluster near each other in town centres, recruitment fairs put all the competition in one place to play the numbers game with visiting delegates.

Also like the high street retail environment, the shop front (or in this case, the exhibition stand) is an important factor in determining where transactions will take place. What we’ve seen over the years is elevation of expectation for many exhibitors, as they move from being satisfied with just having a presence to investing in a showcase for specific products or services. They increasingly measure and quantify return on investment to justify a larger marketing budget for the shows. They refine their choice of which events to attend based on the potential return from each. In other words, exhibitors are raising their sights and raising the bar accordingly.

Having discussed the importance of graduate recruitment above, it surprises us to find that even big companies are exhibiting at these fairs with old equipment, hastily thrown-together displays and some very basic roller banners. It’s like stepping back in time in comparison with other exhibitions we attend. It’s not an industry problem – after all, recruitment fairs cover a multitude of industries. It seems to be an expectation issue, whereby the flock of exhibitors feel comfortable with mediocrity amongst competition that has set their sights equally low.

But every flock has a bellwether – a sheep with just enough extra courage or charisma to become the leader that the others instinctively follow. Our bellwether raising the bar at this season’s careers fairs is Glaxo Smith Klein. We’re roughly halfway through a series of 37 installs for GSK. On top of their graduate schemes, they’re also recruiting for 12-month placements (for sandwich courses), summer placements and direct job opportunities across the business.

Like the university recruitment fairs, these graduate careers fairs take place at venues (mostly universities) all over the country, so are a logistical headache for the exhibitors. If the same couple of people represent a company at all the shows (which is common, because those people need to be very knowledgeable), the cheapest way to achieve this is if those people agree to take their own exhibition stand and all their literature handouts in the car with them. They are expected to install and breakdown the stands before and after each show. That explains why many are still doing the basic roller banner / table cloth combo after all this time.

What GSK have recognised is that standing out therefore requires relatively little effort at this stage, and therefore benefit hugely from being the pioneer. It’s quite likely that raising the bar of expectation like this will cause the other companies to begrudgingly accept that this important enterprise demands a proper investment. We’ve already seen plenty of eyebrows raised in jealousy, sometimes expressing itself as annoyance, as this begins to sink in. How dare GSK have such a good stand, it makes ours look rubbish!

But as we’ve said many times before, the key benefit of Rounded Edge managing the installs and logistics is not how great the stand looks. It is that the people manning the stand are free to concentrate on achieving the aims of attending the event as exhibitors. They will not be knackered or flustered or sweaty having carried 8 boxes of literature from the car park. They won’t have needed to get there an hour early to sort the stand out (or leave an hour late after dismantling it). Their mind can be settled on the task at hand.

If this appears like some devilish ploy to secure custom from the competitors, it is not. Our priority, as ever, is providing the best possible holistic exhibition solution to our client. On the service side of things, GSK are entrusting us with the warehousing, logistics, delivery and installation/breakdown of their stands, including the organisation and transport of their leaflets, brochures and handouts. We’ve designed a custom counter using our aluminium profile system that houses the literature and two secure iPad stations. We’ve collaborated on design elements and produced all their graphic panels with our large format printing expertise. If these are products and services attractive to GSK’s competitors, they are welcome to give us a call.

These are small stand spaces we’re working with at graduate careers fairs, so GSK are maximising what little space they have. It’s a neat solution, employing our ever popular Twist 3-panel kit (two original Twist stands joined with a flexi-panel) for their back-wall. It enables a very large image to span the 3 panels, which is great for projecting the sentiment of ‘what it means to work for us’ in an arresting way. Aside from the exceptional print quality from our large format printers, the Twist stand also exudes professional build quality from its hardware, its ability to be repositioned at various angles, the rigidity of the graphic panels and its top-mounted down-lighters.

In terms of design, GSK have highlighted the human element by focussing on real employees rather than random models. Perhaps these are GSK’s monsters, in the kindest possible way. Simple logos and headline text highlight the 4 main areas of work the graduate programme leads to. All this is fronted by GSK’s corporate logo shape, containing the phrase ‘Exciting minds’. We’re big fans of well-crafted marketing messages, and this is no exception. In two words, GSK have captured the essence of the brand and the programme. The phrase when used as a verb is what they aim to do, and when used as a noun, it is who they hope to recruit.

As usual, we’ll leave you with a gallery so you can see how three variations of the stand were developed and are being used in practice:

Further reading

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Post author

Digital

Client

Medicines, vaccines and healthcare products

Product

Premium portable and modular exhibition display system

Service

Packaging and dispatch

Service

At-show hardware installation and breakdown

Service

Managed storage and distribution

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