Graduates have long been a reliable source of entry level recruits to ensure steady future talent pipelines. But in an increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, HR leaders are going back to the drawing board when it comes to connecting with early in careers candidates.

Since university fees were increased, UCAS applications have fallen by 4%. Meanwhile, two in five of the UK’s largest graduate employers are said to be cutting the number of university leavers they recruit in light of economic uncertainty and pressure to take on more school-leavers, with the number of graduate opportunities down 2.2% this year according to the annual Times guide to the top 100 Graduate Employers. For example, one of our clients has significantly reduced their graduate hire targets from 1200 last year to 950 and increased school leaver recruitment from 250 to 350 this year so we can explicitly see the balance shifting driven by business demand and the quality of school leavers coming through the process. Elsewhere, the Institute of Student Employers’ (ISE) annual survey of graduate employers reveals that growth in apprenticeships is far outstripping the rise in graduate-level jobs, with the number of employers offering apprenticeships rising by almost a fifth (19%) this year alone.

It seems employers are looking at alternatives to traditional graduate schemes in an effort to widen existing talent pools. They are also reassessing how they tap into these valuable communities to boost engagement and quality of hire while aiding retention.

The organisations we work with understand that attracting high-potential individuals relies on a strong and compelling employer value proposition which is communicated through a robust, and authentic, social media strategy. As we see a rise in digital roles which require the innate skills of graduates and apprentices, the same focus on digital is being reflected in the ways in which companies are engaging with their candidates. These tactics include a seamless digital attraction strategy, fully automated selection process and a focus on rich-media and gamification, such as virtual reality assessments. Messages should align with the wants and needs of the Gen Z demographic, such as the opportunity to excel professionally, a focus on work-life balance and a desire to work for an ethical employer.

We now spend a third of our waking lives on our smartphones and other digital devices according to Digital Trends, and so proactively optimising the candidate’s experience using the latest technologies is essential. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 7 out of 10 job seekers prefer to use mobile technology to search for jobs. However, only 45% of employers have mobile-friendly career sites, according to a 2016 Jobvite report. Today’s school and university leavers are digital natives, they expect to be able to complete the entire recruitment process from start to finish on a single mobile handset. Organisations which do not offer this level of usability risk losing talent to organisations which do.

The most innovative employers are also using programmatic methods to tailor online content to potential recruits to ensure the messages individual targets receive are aligned to their passions and priorities. Candidates who express an interest in working in a certain area based on search history, for example, can be fed information on opportunities based in that geography, while those who spend time researching CSR initiatives should be sent updates on how that employer is supporting its local community.

Ensuring messages delivered during the recruitment process reflect the reality of working at the organisation also has a positive effect on attrition. According to research from the Institute of Student Employers, the average graduate programme retention rate is 91%, yet retention rates when out of the programme, drop to just 62% over the following three years. The report attributed this drop out to expectations around career progression not being met in around half of all cases. Firms invest £3,500 per new hire on average to recruit new graduates, but 1 in 10 job offers are turned down, and in 5% of cases, candidates renege on job offers after saying yes. Consistency in communications can help mitigate against this fall-out.

It’s worth noting that, in the case of school leaver or apprenticeship roles in particular, organisations must also build communications strategies which engage with parent communities as well as candidates themselves. Parents serve as a major influence in their children’s career development and career decision making. In a study by Bregman and Killen (1999) it was documented that adolescents valued parental influence and guidance in the area of career choice and vocational development. Research based on Facebook’s enormous data set has found children tend to make career choices based on what jobs their parents and siblings have and 82% of Generation Z say their parents will help influence their career decisions. With this in mind, HR leaders may wish to review and reconsider the parameters of where their target audiences lie.

The options that young people have in terms of routes into the workplace are expanding, and HR strategists must widen the net around engagement strategies in response. Those who are able to identify relevant audiences, and communicate with them on a level which they understand and appreciate, stand the best chance of attracting and retaining the brightest talent.