University recruitment fairs have always attracted large numbers of businesses and students alike. For companies, they provide access to numerous candidates under one roof, employers get to meet with students with diverse academic backgrounds and they also have the opportunity to get their company name out there, increasing the exposure of their brand. Human Resources heads are also on the hunt for the best talent, hoping to snap them up before their opposition does.

For students, the recruitment fairs are a way to explore different options and career paths, learn about potential internship opportunities, meet and talk with representatives from a broad spectrum of companies and develop a network of potential contacts.

Yet, despite the attractiveness of these recruitment fairs, in the last couple of years things have started to change. Fewer companies are attending the ‘milk rounds’ and there has also been a decline in the number of graduates attending.

Why are the numbers diminishing?

Part of the answer lies as a result of the global economic decline that began seven years ago. As unemployment levels rose, thousands of graduates found it near impossible to get jobs that reflected their academic qualifications and their career aspirations. That left many in jobs that were outside their graduate education, possibly in non-graduate roles, but they did gain valuable experience in the workforce. As economies start to recover, there are employers who believe this real world experience to be more valuable than hiring recent graduates with no work experience.

Another reason is descriptive: companies have always chased the “best talent” but what defines best talent? In specific disciplines, such as law for example, top talent might be defined as the brightest in the class from the top universities. But that’s not the case in many other areas. For example, a degree in computer science from a top university does not guarantee that someone is capable of writing great code. Furthermore, popular coding languages and technology trends are moving so fast that undergraduate courses simply cannot keep up.

Given that the ‘new world’ – the digital era world – is being built on code, it could be said that every company is becoming a tech company, irrespective of the industry it operates in. Facebook doesn’t go to universities to hire the best-of-the best: the company identifies businesses with the talent it requires, then pays millions of dollars to acquire that company to poach its tech talent (a process known as acqui-hiring). Once acquired, the company gets shut down and the engineers work for Facebook.

Top global accountancy firm, Ernst and Young (EY), recently announced that it was to remove degree classification from the entry criteria for its UK hiring programmes. This means that potential candidates no longer require a 2:1 degree and the equivalent of three B grades at A level to be considered for its graduate programmes.

More than academia

EY also believes that the best talent is not derived just from academia. While academic qualifications will still be taken into account and remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, the firm says there is no evidence that success at university is correlated with achievement in professional qualifications.

From the students’ perspective they, too, have changed. As has been well documented, the Y generation is very different from their previous generation when it comes to seeking work. Millennials are more interested (in the first instance) in seeking opportunities rather than jobs. Certainly, soon-to-be graduates will attend recruitment fairs but, for many, they will not be looking for jobs. As one HR director found, graduates at recent university recruitment fairs were more interested in work placement rather than a permanent role.

It seems, therefore, that by not placing academic credentials at the top of the recruitment list, companies are looking to widen the gene pool of talent, moving towards diversity of thought over conventional education.

For some, however, there remains the tendency for executives to fall back on the old routine of recruiting candidates from the same (or very similar) academic backgrounds as their own. Data provided to the researchers of a recent study by the UK’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission indicated that applicants from the top UK universities go on to receive between 60 and 70 percent of all job offers from the leading global accountancy firms. That demonstrates that their applications have a greater chance of success than those submitted by other graduates.

What this potentially leads to is that corporate DNA remains largely unchanged resulting in a lack of cross-fertilisation that ultimately leads to an inability to rapidly evolve in a growing and dynamic marketplace.

Even the Vatican has woken up to widening the pool of talent. Controlling around 20 percent of Italy’s real estate and worldwide real estate assets estimated at $2 trillion, Pope Francis is now hiring English-speaking MBAs to sort out the church’s finances. Previously, Italian was the official language, which greatly limited the pool of expertise required by the Pontiff.

For companies that have been around a while, that have to come up with different ways of playing the game. Standing still is not an option because when they keep doing the same things year after year, the competition will quickly figure them out, make the necessary adjustments and leave them behind.

When companies recruit from a diverse set of potential employees, they are more able to hire the best and the brightest talent. In an increasingly competitive economy where talent is crucial to improving the bottom line, pooling from the largest and most diverse set of candidates is essential for success.