Attracting today’s top engineering graduates requires a plan of action
The competition among A/E/C firms to attract today’s top graduates from engineering and construction science programs is fierce. A growing construction marketplace, plus fewer people entering the A/E/C industry, is fueling demand for candidates in these disciplines. Those who have combined technical degrees in civil engineering or construction management with business development, estimating, and project management skills may receive as many as eight job offers as early as nine months before their graduation date. With so many options available, it is vital that firms have a well-planned, structured approach to recruiting to ensure a successful match between student and firm, and long-term retention.
Reaching students early
Reaching students early in their college experience is one of the best ways to attract top students. If a firm waits to recruit students in their senior year, it’s often too late. To begin, a company must identify the schools that offer the best potential candidates for its particular needs. The school’s academics—construction, engineering, and related disciplines—location, and number of students in the applicable programs must be good matches for your firm. And, just because a school produces good candidates for your competitors doesn’t necessarily mean these same candidates will be a fit for your firm. A top school may have to be removed from the target list if the firm hasn’t had success in finding candidates for its needs. For instance, a firm with a need for candidates interested primarily in project management may not be successful at a school with a curriculum geared toward producing dedicated design engineers. Additionally, the school may produce top-notch candidates, but if 95 percent typically accept job offers within a 50-mile radius of the campus, it might be unwise to spend recruiting funds trying to entice them to positions hundreds of miles away.
After compiling a carefully researched list of targeted schools, develop relationships with key college personnel, student organizations, and career placement centers. Department heads and professors provide links to students, while student groups and placement centers keep companies informed about important opportunities on campus, such as career fairs, mentor programs, and internship opportunities.
A thriving, and even competitive, internship program is another smart way to begin the recruiting process long before a student is ready to make a final decision about a permanent career. Programs for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors allow a firm the time to get to know potential candidates in a real job situation. The key is giving students real-world experience during their internships. You don’t want an intern to sit in an office and make copies and send faxes for an entire summer. Such an experience will likely sour that student on his or her experience with your company. Do some pre-planning and have some real-life, hands-on projects to which the student can contribute in a meaningful way. For instance, after a few days of orientation and training, have the student help your team with an estimate or an inspection. If you’ve chosen the right intern, you’ll generally find that the student will learn the task, take initiative, and contribute quickly.
Firms with successful internship programs often find that many new employees began as interns. But the benefits of internship programs extend well beyond the recruiting process. Interns who become full-time employees after graduation are already assimilated into a company’s culture and may be familiar with current jobs on the firm’s schedule. They will be comfortable with coworkers and even may have developed some new friendships—an important factor for retaining these employees.
Firms also can reach students early in the college experience if employees teach classes at the university level. Most colleges are receptive to having members of the engineering or construction community teach courses. Students are generally excited about having a guest speaker. It adds to their experience and can break up the monotony of the daily classroom grind. While it may be challenging to coordinate a busy project manager’s or engineer’s schedule with a college program, the rewards are well worth the effort and time. Students learn about the firm and profit from the real-world experience a professional in the field brings to the classroom. Even if an adjunct teaching position is not possible, stepping in for one class as a guest speaker can provide many of the same advantages.
Perhaps the most critical step in the recruiting process is the interview phase. This is a student’s best opportunity to learn about a firm and a firm’s best opportunity to learn about the student. Prior to the initial interview, some firms have meetings to discuss the position and its particular requirements. Taking such steps early in the process helps weed out candidates who clearly aren’t a fit for the firm.
To further facilitate the selection process, involving many people from the firm in the interview can help both sides learn as much as possible about each other in the short time involved. With a wide range of employees participating in the interview process, however, it’s beneficial to train the interviewers on interview techniques, questions, rules, and regulations. Once pre-interview training is completed, a firm will find that having representatives from various departments, such as human resources, finance, risk management, and project management, involved in the interview provides a wide variety of opinions and assessments. The interview wrap-up session allows members of the interview team to discuss thoughts on the candidate’s qualifications, tolerance for travel, cultural fit, career goals, and plans for additional education—often bringing to light many items that might have been difficult for only one or two interviewers to identify. Additionally, when a decision about a candidate must be made quickly, the larger team can help speed the process. For the candidate, meeting so many employees provides an opportunity to get a good sense of the company and its employees.
Ensuring a smooth interview process begins the moment an interview is scheduled. If the student must travel for the interview, a "buddy system" often helps make the candidate feel welcome. The buddy, preferably a new graduate who was recently in the student’s position of searching for a job, should pick up the student from the airport and take them to dinner the night before the interview. This is a good way to create an initial comfort level between the candidate and the firm.
Throughout the visit, firms should take steps to make each candidate feel special. Remembering names, making sure students don’t sit outside of an office for extended periods of time, and taking a personal interest can go a long way toward making a memorable impression.
For many firms, more than one round of interviews is required for the selection process. During second interviews, the candidate pool is narrowed to the more promising candidates. Second interviews can be scheduled to provide time for students to visit job sites and see fieldwork—a great opportunity to spend time with potential coworkers and ask them some direct questions in a setting outside of an office or conference room.
When a good candidate is identified, a firm must move quickly. Taking too long to make an offer can leave a firm with a small selection pool or missed opportunities with first-choice candidates. In this competitive job market, waiting more than a week after the final interview may jeopardize chances of landing that candidate. But, if your company has maintained good communication during the interview process, the final decision should be fairly easy.
Being smart about salaries
To be competitive, some contracting firms pay a premium just to get students on board. But in the long term, is it the best approach? Offering students large starting salaries may get them in the door, but it may not be the best way to ensure retention. Will the top-dollar starting salary hinder an employee’s future income growth? If so, the employee may soon grow dissatisfied if his or her compensation caps out quickly, causing other companies or opportunities to look interesting. The result: You spent a year or two training an employee only to have him or her take that knowledge and experience to a competitor.
The best approach is to choose new employees who want to select their firm for more reasons than just the salary. Finding employees who accept a position for more than just the salary requires capitalizing on every asset a firm has to offer—a number of locations, opportunities for travel or leadership, a unique training program, or a great company culture. Firms should take stock of every advantage beyond compensation and promote these benefits to students during the recruitment process.
Before making an offer, a firm should be current on the going rates for entry-level salaries. Are other firms offering signing bonuses? If so, what are they? Is the firm willing to get into a bidding war? The offer also should take into account cost-of-living differences, extensive travel, or frequent location changes.
One good way to find out what the competition is offering is to call students who declined your firm’s job offers. Ask to interview them about their reasons for declining the position and, if applicable, why they accepted another company’s offer. Students are generally amenable to this request and will provide you with valuable job market information.
Recruiting for a position can’t stop once the offer has been made. Even if it seems the student is a "sure thing," there’s no guarantee he or she will accept. A firm should continue pursuing quality candidates and getting top students in the door to ensure the position is filled with the best person for the job.
Firms today realize that being competitive in the marketplace requires a proactive recruiting plan. A less organized approach could likely result in a poor match for the firm and the employee. The result of such a poor match is costly turnover, and no company wants to spend money on training employees only to lose them after one or two years.
With so much at stake, it may greatly benefit a firm to establish a formal career development program that focuses on hiring and keeping great employees. Finding a way to reach students early and promoting every advantage the firm has to offer can go a long way toward recruiting the country’s best new graduates and securing the future leadership of your company.
Patrick McGuire, a corporate recruiter for Structural Group, has nine years of experience in the recruiting industry. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-899-1016. Structural Group comprises three companies: Structural Preservation Systems (structural repair and strengthening), VSL (post-tensioning and specialty reinforcement), and Pullman Power (chimney, silo, and stack construction, maintenance, and repair).