Weronika Benning, Patrick Molloy, Georgina Potts (UCL Careers)
Connection with employers is a key element of our students’ employability education. While huge swathes of summer 2020 internships were cancelled, employers themselves underwent a rapid shift to remote working, recruitment, selection, onboarding and induction – amidst slashed budgets and limited resources. The Careers team quickly learned to adapt to digital event delivery, continuing to connect students and employers, whilst keeping abreast of the graduate labour market perspective and the situation facing recruiters. We have presented seven career fairs since the start of the pandemic entirely online, making use of our existing Careers platform, myUCLCareers, in novel and innovative ways – and persuading our employer contacts to take a leap of faith with us. We found numerous benefits in delivering the fairs in this way – ranging from greater inclusivity, respect to the practicalities of our students’ and employers’ circumstances, and delivery of return on investment in the form of rich, bespoke data.
Covid-19 had a particularly negative effect on the graduate labour market, with companies forced to reassess priorities to address the impact of the pandemic. Many early-careers programmes were delayed or cancelled outright, due to slashed budgets and fears about effective remote induction and support for new graduate hires. Over 60% of employers reported having to cancel work experience placements and internships altogether in the summer of 2020 . This left great uncertainty among students and graduates about having access to building their employer networks and gaining meaningful work experience.
The core employer engagement team at UCL Careers is in place to facilitate these connections between students/recent graduates, and the employers who may hire them. Not only did we need to combat the sudden plummet of internship and graduate roles, but meanwhile employers themselves were undergoing the same rapid shift to a virtual working world that we ourselves have done at UCL—with suddenly increased workloads, and planning challenged by uncertainty.
What did we need?
We rapidly learned to shift our 1-1 appointment offering and basic event formats, such as panel discussions and workshops, online using Blackboard/Collaborate and Microsoft Teams, finding these platforms suitable for our educational insight / skill development events. We also collected data constantly from our employer contacts – carrying out interviews and surveys, hosting forums, sharing insights with other institutions, utilising third party research, and more.
Our Career Fair programme, however, posed some unique challenges. This autumn event programme normally runs over 10 days, with 7 sectors and approximately 300 employer attendances. Over 4,000 students usually attend, with as many as 800 in a single evening.
Furthermore, the benefit of these events is intrinsically linked to their structure – students self-select employers to visit at their own pace, benefitting from listening into group conversations as well as speaking one-to-one with employer representatives. Employers set up stands with the intention of attracting new interest, as well as building rapport and networking with committed applicants.
A cost-effective solution was urgently needed in time for implementing for the autumn term. Research into the rapidly growing market of virtual event platforms consistently presented challenges, mainly around the prohibitive costs, but also with issues around data integration and sharing. UCL was not alone in this challenge– we stayed in close contact with our peers in other HEIs facing precisely the same issues. While comparisons and advice sharing were very helpful, a new concern also emerged: how many new systems were employers going to have to acclimate to, upload their information to, and upskill their staff in? Attending several universities’ autumn fairs had traditionally been a process of sending materials and representatives on a scheduled set of visits – organising travel, perhaps, but otherwise very straightforward. Now, finding ways to engage students online would replace eye-catching booths and assorted freebies, and uploading company and representative information would take the place of couriering leaflets and placing an informed person in a room full of students.
Suddenly we were looking at a very new style of event – one that required employers to be tech-ready, that convinced them of the value of paying to take part, and that enabled them to connect easily and readily with students and graduates.
What did we use?
Once we had committed to completely virtual delivery, we recognised that we needed to balance the needs of students with the challenges facing employers, such as budget cuts, engaging students online, and lack of experience with online delivery.
Having looked at various online platforms, evaluating their benefits and drawbacks, we concluded that we could adapt use our existing Careers Service Management System, myUCLCareers, which uses the platform TargetConnect. TargetConnect had recently updated to meet the needs of its university partners, by allowing their event pages to indicate whether an event was “virtual” and formatting the display of an event to effectively function as online “booths” that a student could visit. We could therefore run the event entirely within the promotional and booking page – by linking employer profiles and inviting them to populate their “booth” with information, and a supply a live video chat link for the fair. This allowed employers to use video chat software that they already held licenses and/or familiarity with, with UCL Careers filling in the gaps to offer a video chat link where needed. Employers also had full control and flexibility over numbers of representatives and building in 1-1 or group discussions. Meanwhile, it allowed us to meet the students where they already were—as they use myUCLCareers for appointment booking, event booking, and browsing the jobs board. We concluded that use of this system offered us as the most scope and flexibility and was the most cost-effective solution.
What worked well
We feel that we did well to shift our careers fair events to a virtual format last year. It was an amazing effort to get employers to commit in a time of great uncertainty to our virtual fairs.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of our virtual career fairs was that employers or students could join from anywhere in the world, not being restricted by region or Time Zones—particularly critical when many students were unable to be in London due to the pandemic. This type of event made it easier for all to participate.
Students also found virtual fairs more accessible– we know that the traditional fairs present a very real challenge to many students due to their associated crowds and potential for competitiveness. We’ve seen patterns in our own data indicating that female students are less likely to attend career fairs, as well as students with health conditions which may make the noise and crowd difficult to navigate. Holding the fairs virtually removed several barriers of engagement and levelled the playing field to many who may not have typically felt comfortable in this environment. We also saw a greater conversion of first-time users of UCL Careers— every fair, with the exception of one, had a significantly higher proportion of first year students than across previous years. Student feedback mentioned the lack of crowds as well as improved direct access to employers:
It was great to be able to speak one on one with individuals representing firms I am interested in applying to, rather than in settings where there may be 50 other people all trying to ask questions as well!
The fact it was online, I was able to speak to the employers and graduates in comparison to when the event is held on campus as it usually gets very crowded and I never get the opportunity to speak to them. The online version was much more convenient as it allows everyone to raise their questions and speak to employers from all of the firms who were present.
Compared to IRL events the virtual one allowed for more people to get their questions answered. This was great, as all the people hanging around trying to get free pens didn’t bother coming.
For employers, compared to in-person events, the cost of virtual career fairs is dramatically lower. There is no travel involved, and they require fewer staff to take part. There are also no extra expenses for things like security, giveaways or refreshments.
Employers were also able to benefit from the real-time data that we were able to obtain in a way that’s simply never been possible with a physical event. Following the event, we were able to provide each employer a data breakdown illustrating the demographics of the students and graduates who attended the fair and who visited their virtual stand. For an example, please view the Appendix. This is a level of detail that is of immense value to employers, as it provides them with recent, actionable evidence about which student groups they are attracting. Some employer feedback about the reports included:
This is really helpful. Great to have this on file so we can track success of the fair – we look forward to partnering with you next year!
Thanks , super interesting to see the data. We haven’t seen this level of insight from other events, so big thanks for taking the time.
Virtual fairs also allowed us to promote a more sustainable event format with no wasted food, no plastic giveaways, no travel and no transport of display stands.
Challenges and lessons learned
Despite an overwhelmingly positive virtual fair experience, where we felt satisfied in our attempts to successfully identify and meet the core needs of our employers and students, there were, of course, areas for further improvement identified:
- Appropriate costing was a real challenge, as employers had no appetite to pay as much for a virtual fair as they would have for the physical, particularly in a climate of economic uncertainty. Balancing this with our own business need was very tricky, as fairs are a significant income generator for us which fund some of our free activities. We also had to position our pricing in the context of our competitors – what they were charging, but also what exactly they were offering and how it would be perceived by employers.
- Value for money, and associated return on investment, quickly emerged as a major priority for employers. Employers engaging with multiple universities were quick to compare the offerings– some being impressed by bespoke platforms offering almost virtual-reality-like experiences where you could clearly see where the money was being spent. However, beyond the window dressing, only one thing could be the true test of value for money– the quality of the engagement with students and the return on time investment, translating to student hires.
- Quality over quantity: all employers noticed the difference in student numbers arriving at their virtual stands. Unlike the physical experience, with crowds of students hovering in the hall looking out for freebies and leaflets to take away, creating a buzz and sense of popularity, students engaging on-line were doing their leaflet browsing outside of the meeting spaces, only engaging when they had something to ask or a best foot to put forward. Attracting a crowd could not therefore be used as a marker of success— employers needed numbers to reassure them of that interest. Data reports detailing unique visits logged on their profiles, hits of vacancies, visits to their virtual stands and the breakdown on type of student looking to engage with them, were key to fulfilling this need.
What we plan to do next year
With many lessons learned about the benefits and challenges of virtual fairs, we will be committing our fair programme in 2021 to a virtual environment yet again. We will focus on delivering the most impactful and specific returns on investment for employers, making the enhanced features our platform provider continue to add.
Our experiences in 2020 have also demonstrated to us that we can include a wider range of employers at virtual events, taking some of the emphasis away from London-based opportunities. This will allow us to run non-UK region-specific fairs as a regular part of our future programming – we trialled our first one successfully in late March for employment opportunities in China. We hope that this will address some of the patterns of feedback we’ve received from international students attending our main autumn fairs, who have indicated frustration in the past at seeing too few employers targeting them. Expanding our events portfolio into virtual environments will allow us to better serve the needs of a wider range of students and employers than ever before. Furthermore, by working with recruitment needs of non-UK employers, some of the pressure would be taken off the income generated from the UK autumn Milkround season.
Reflection on impacts of the shift to digital on employer engagement in the future
Clearly some of the pandemic’s effects on ways of working are here to stay– including some degree of remote engagement and work.
Employers have indicated widely that they anticipate a greater emphasis on online recruitment and selection going forward– with face-to-face interactions playing a smaller and more strategic role in the process. The pandemic has demonstrated for many organisations how effectively their workforce can operate remotely, and that they would currently prefer a blended approach of face-to-face/online engagement opportunities.
Student feedback highlights that certain elements of online engagement work very well, and we are keen to ensure that they have access to employers across whichever formats suit them best.
Beyond the upcoming autumn term, the future of our major event delivery remains uncertain. We will continue to be led by student and employer expectations, constantly re-evaluating and assessing available data in order to deliver the best experience for all. The move online and the rapid work undertaken to support it has allowed us to be responsive in an incredibly timely way.
This has been a learning experience that has encouraged reflection by all. The process has helped focus our energies onto what is most important, valuable and impactful about our engagements, rather than holding onto what has always been. By wiping the slate clean we have found elements of increased sustainability, affordability and accessibility for our students and graduate employers, which will help us re-write the roadmap for employer engagement in the future.
Example of data report provided to employers after the fair. This example is based on the UCL Careers stand at the fair.