by Christina Wood

6 tips for recruiting college IT talent

Oct 15, 201910 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

Don't fear the FAANG: A targeted recruiting approach focused on establishing relationships and showing candidates their future can help any IT organization succeed on campus.

Filling open IT positions has become difficult. Filling them with diverse and talented staff — the dream of everyone running an IT department — seems impossible.

The hard truth is that there are currently 700,000 unfilled IT jobs in the U.S. and 87 percent of IT executives say it’s challenging to find people to fill them.

“Our clients — on average — were hitting two thirds to three quarters of their hiring goals each year,” says Mohit Bhende, founder of Karat, a company that interviews job candidates for companies that are hiring.

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For those having difficulty landing experienced talent, or coming up short on poaching efforts, colleges can make great talent pipelines. But when you go looking for college graduates with the right skills, you are competing with monsters — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google (the FAANG companies) — for a limited resource. They have the recruitment resources and an appetite for talent you can’t begin to match.

But maybe you don’t have to.

We spoke to CIOs, CTOs, colleges, and experts at tech hiring and discovered this: There are a lot of missed opportunities out there. You might not need a bazillion dollar budget and an army of adorable college recruiters. You just need to be clever.

Here are six strategies any IT department can try.

Go to school

Schools — from community colleges to big universities — are churning out more students than ever. Today, 39 percent of people aged 25 to 37 have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Compared to the Silent Generation’s 15 percent, 25 percent of Baby Boomers, and 29 percent of Gen Xers (according to Pew Internet), that’s a big increase. Not all of these students are graduating from well-known schools, though.

Is there a college — even a community college — nearby that is not one of the big schools everyone else is shopping? If your company has a personal connection to the school, even better. But even if the college down the street is well-known, it’s worth building a relationship there.

Dr. Giovanni Vigna is CTO of Lastline, the director of the Computer Security Group at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and a computer science professor and researcher there. “The big companies contact me on a regular basis,” he says. “They are looking for my students because I have a lab. Those companies know very well where the talent is. So the students already know about these opportunities. What they don’t know about are the medium opportunities.”  

The FAANG companies that contact Vigna are not doing anything you can’t do. “All you have to do is offer to give an informative talk at the school and bring pizza for the question and answer session,” says Vigna. Students love free pizza. And they want to know about the opportunities at companies not already on their radar.

Get out of the CS box

Jonathan Rowe, CMO of nCino, a fintech company based in Wilmington, North Carolina, agrees it’s necessary to create relationships with schools. Located far from tech hubs, nCino finds it difficult to convince tech talent to relocate. So, the company hires about 40 students a year from regional colleges it has developed relationships with. But going to schools, developing relationships, and bringing pizza is only one step. A key part of nCino’s strategy is thinking outside the computer science box.

“You can’t assume the only people who will be successful in IT are those majoring in computer science,” says Rowe “We have found great talent elsewhere. We’ve hired people with history majors, business backgrounds, and communications degrees with good problem-solving and analytical approaches. We trained them on the software skills we need at nCino.”

This is a strategy bigger companies employ as well.

“We have successful people at PayPal with a degree in a different sphere of engineering — like mechanical engineering,” says Sri Shivananda, senior vice president and CTO of PayPal. “We have people with art degrees working in computer science. People with degrees in anthropology or psychology can be a great fit as a product manager, understanding what customers want and bringing it back to the engineering team.”

Create an internship pipeline

Students need to do internships. And for many students, a paid internship is the only way they will survive. For your company, a summer internship is a brilliant way to find and vet talent. Going to a college campus, though, is not the only way to find them.

Cindy McKenzie, CIO at Deluxe, is co-founder of the nonprofit STEM Advantage, which aims to help women and minorities complete technical degrees. “When women and minorities go into these majors, they often change midstream,” she says. “It just doesn’t work for them.” STEM Advantage aims to provide the support this group needs to complete that degree.

“Everyone who gets accepted into the program gets a scholarship, an internship, and a mentor,” says McKenzie. “The assumption is that, with that full package, they will be immensely hirable when they graduate. That has proved out. Every single student — in the seven years we’ve been doing this — has gotten a job.”

As a result, this program has become a pipeline for a diverse, skilled talent pool for the companies that provide the internships. “We only work with Cal State colleges in California,” says McKenzie. “This tends to be a first-generation college population and they are very loyal. They usually take the job, if they are offered one, after the internship. So, this becomes an amazing talent pipeline. You have tested someone because you had them for a summer. If you love them, you keep them.”

PayPal has partnered with a similar program, Year Up, to find interns since 2015. “Internships are a great way to offer students a project so they can understand what it means to work in a corporate setting,” says Shivananda. “Our interns might go work for another company or we might hire interns from another company. But, collectively, we all have to provide a ramp for these students, so they can enter the industry and drive their careers forward.”

Not being big is an asset

Students are not only looking for a job, they are seeking a future. They want work to be interesting, their employer to care about them, and to believe in what they are doing. After Facebook’s scandal with Cambridge Analytica, for example, Facebook’s average acceptance rate for full-time positions offered to new graduates fell from 85 percent to somewhere between 35 percent and 55 percent, according to CNBC.

When you are building relationship with faculty and students, your non-FAANG status might be a plus. If you have a smaller staff, a great team, and an interesting mission, students will be drawn to that. “Often big companies have a sink or swim attitude,” says Mark Goldin, CTO of recruitment company Cornerstone. “They aren’t always focused on mentoring recent grads or helping them grow their careers. This is something students crave, and it’s something they find at a mid-sized company.”

Show them their future

There is a big difference between going to a college and announcing, “We are hiring!” and going there to introduce your company and say, “We are always looking for good talent.” One is transactional and the other is about building a long-term relationship. This is something companies in other fields have been doing for a long time. Their approach often continues beyond that initial hire. It contains a snapshot of the future.

“In tech, there is a lot of good marketing around the first job you would do if you joined a company,” explains Karat’s Bhende. “Compare that to the way to McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, or other investment banking consulting firms recruit. Those companies are specialists at conveying, ‘Work at our company for a few years and someday you will be a CEO.’ In tech, everyone knows they can get a high-paying first job. Leadership pathways are much more nebulous.”

Help the students and interns see their future. They may have no idea what career choices lead to in the future.

Host a club or hackathon

There are a few ideas you can steal from big companies and do on the cheap.

Microsoft, for example, holds an annual global technology competition for students — Microsoft Imagine Cup — that focuses the attention of talented students of technology from all over the world on opportunities at Microsoft.

You don’t have to go global to do something along these lines. Simply host a hackathon or club on campus or at your location — on a smaller scale.

“A great way to increase awareness of your company among students,” says University of California at Santa Barbara’s Vigna, “is to organize interest groups that get together and talk about tech. Sponsor one of these. Offer a place to gather and bring some pizza. This is a great way to get the attention of technology enthusiasts. And it costs almost nothing.”

This strategy has worked well for nCino. “The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has an IT security club,” says Rowe. “We sponsor that club.”

Cornerstone uses its Hackathon to raise awareness of the company beyond even those students who participate in the event. “We try to promote our annual Hackathon — a global event that results in new product ideas — widely across social media to spread awareness of it to younger generations,” says Goldin.

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