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Companies on campus recruiting for jobs with eye toward future

TAMPA — The Nielsen Co. has cut hundreds of jobs at its Oldsmar complex in recent years and outsourced work to Indian contractors. But that hasn't stopped the eponymous TV ratings company from expanding its presence on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus.

Nielsen's push includes sponsoring "Welcome Week" events, staging an "elevator speech" competition for students to practice their resume-pitching skills, and hosting tours of the company's operation. During spring exams, Nielsen reps spent a morning on campus handing out free bagels to test takers.

"Nielsen is very strategic in getting their brand in front of students as an employer of choice. … I've been very impressed," said Drema Howard, who runs USF's Career Center.

Leave it to a number-cruncher like Nielsen to be keen on shifting demographics: A talent shortage is on the horizon.

It may not seem evident now. Corporate hiring at college campuses is up only marginally from a year ago, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And with unemployment north of 9 percent nationally and 10.6 percent statewide, no one doubts this is still very much an employer's market.

But the economy will improve sometime, and an aging work force of retiring baby boomers will eventually turn the tables on companies that have been feasting on a smorgasbord of job-hungry recruits.

When that tide turns — be it a year from now or five — smart businesses realize those with the strongest university relationships will be best poised to compete for the best and brightest graduates.

That's one reason why Nielsen has been so aggressive. It's why Target Corp. years ago hired a student intern to work on USF's campus to promote the retailer. It's why Cisco funds university labs around the country and Microsoft sponsors scholarships and programs that steer high school students toward careers in math and engineering.

Master Burnett, managing director of corporate recruiting consultant Dr. John Sullivan & Associates, said companies learned their lesson after the 2001 recession when some pulled back too much from college recruiting.

Case in point: 3M.

For nearly four years after the 2001 recession, 3M curtailed its college campus recruiting. By the time the tech titan returned in earnest in 2006, it had paid a price, Burnett said.

"What they found was they had dried up their pipeline at the same time their organization was getting significantly more gray," Burnett said. "They realized, 'We did no entry-level hiring, so now we have no entry-level candidates.' "

The company's biggest snag in recruiting wasn't name recognition, but lack of younger workers already in its employ. "Do you want to work for an organization that doesn't have anyone who looks like you?" he asked.

This time, even during the height of the Great Recession, the recruiting pullback was more restrained.

Fewer companies attended job fairs, but they stayed tethered to schools in other ways: sponsoring concerts and lectures; serving on advisory boards; holding information sessions for students; and reaching out through social media like Facebook, LinkedIn and Zumeo.

"Branding is so much more than handing out a backpack or a pen with a company's name on it," said Howard, of USF's Career Center.

At USF, for instance, insurer Geico recently sponsored a Believe-a-Bull-or-Not trivia contest, donating an Apple iPad to the winner. In the fall, the university is planning a series of programs hosted by area businesses to help students make the transition from student to professional. The working title of the series: Transform-a-Bull.

For Nielsen, college recruiting has transformed into a sideline business. The firm has about 120 employees nationwide involved in recruiting graduates, including 20 at USF alone.

Chris Gera, Nielsen vice president of field information and support services, says the company has participated in more than 40 USF events this past year.

"Much of the effort we put forth is simply about doing the right thing, either for the students or for the community," Gera said.

One example he cited was a corporate mentor program that paired about 40 local business leaders with first-generation college students. Mentors and mentees met once a week to discuss career planning and professional development.

With 3,000 employees and contractors in five locations in the Tampa Bay area, Nielsen's local presence is down slightly in recent years, the company acknowledges. But it is always on the hunt for some new hires, even in down times. This spring, Nielsen hired 21 USF graduates, the majority for its Tampa Bay operation, but some for New York and Cincinnati as well.

Getting the brand out

Branding isn't the only reason companies maintain close ties to universities.

Citi, the financial services conglomerate, has long been active at both USF and the University of Tampa. Among other connections, it co-founded the USF/Patel Charter School on campus and sponsors the school chapters of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA).

However, Citi community relations liaison Lou Buccino said the relationship was not driven by branding and recruitment as much as by natural community tie-ins. Among Citi's 4,000-plus employees in the bay area, it counts hundreds of USF and UT alumni along with parents of university students and teachers.

Citi has been advised "we could probably get more bang for our buck by being a little more conscious about promoting our name," Buccino said.

But that hasn't been the focus.

For smaller companies, on the other hand, making a name for yourself on campus as an attractive employer is paramount.

Metrohm USA Inc., a Swiss-owned company that sells analytical equipment to chemists worldwide, opened a center in Riverview 21/2 years ago. The company this spring tapped USF's Career Center to find four interns.

"This is a long-term relationship," said Mark Garcia, who works in human resources for Metrohm. "I reached out to them to begin this pipeline of growing the chemist (hires) here."

Garcia, a USF grad, acknowledged Metrohm was largely unknown by both USF students and faculty until this year, when company reps met the chairs of the chemistry and chemical engineering departments.

Four months ago, Metrohm brought some USF staffers to its offices for a tour. It sent out an e-mail blast through the career center, held a couple of presentations and interviewed up to 50 people for the four intern slots.

"We wanted to be a step ahead of everyone, and that's why we are hiring now and training these (interns)," Garcia said. "So they will have a loyalty to us as well."

Why hire from universities instead of other companies?

"We don't have to untrain … their bad habits," Garcia said. "Plus, I know the caliber of folks coming out of USF, and that's attractive to me."

And the recession?

Though it didn't scare campus recruiters away, the recession has certainly forced employers to be smarter and more selective in how they chase after students, said Shally Steckerl, executive vice president of recruiting consultant Arbita.

General job fairs are less common, but career-specific, targeted job fairs have picked up. Companies may spend less on campuswide freebies and e-mail promotions, but they zero in on their ideal hires. Or, as Steckerl puts it, "they're not going to bring as much swag, but rent a boat and take top candidates out on a private party."

Co-ops and internships, including unpaid internships, are still part of the equation. But increasingly companies are taking the more economical route of contracting out projects, paying a group of students a stipend to work under the company's guidance to solve problems.

The mobile revolution has also changed the process. Some recruiters bypass e-mail entirely, preferring texting to reach students. For some recruiters, Facebook has emerged as the preferred method to interact with candidates and answer questions

Burnett, the recruiting consultant, gives kudos to Deloitte LLP for ratcheting social media to another level. The accounting firm's Facebook page has swelled to the point that students have begun answering other students' questions, a notable sign of interactive success.

The next evolution already under way, Steckerl said, is students promoting themselves to potential employers via social networks.

It's no longer a matter of dropping a high-profile contact's name to get an interview with an employer, he said; it's about having a well-rounded resume with plenty of social contacts that you bring to the table. So when an employer checks out your ample LinkedIn contacts, for instance, the company is more likely to be impressed.

"Networking back in the day … used to be about 'Who do you know?'" Steckerl said. "Now, it's about, 'Who knows you?' … It's a complete paradigm shift."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or jharrington@sptimes.com.

Companies on campus recruiting for jobs with eye toward future 07/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 18, 2011 11:15am]
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