Career Center, corporate employers and students adapt to virtual recruiting process

"A lot of the employers really want us to offer in-person career fairs again on campus because we want to connect again with real live students," Kerri Keller, executive director at the Career Center, said. (Archive photo by Evert Nelson | Collegian Media Group)

In a typical year, the Kansas State Career Center would have over 20,000 interactions with students through advising or career fairs. This year only about half of that number occurred, according to Kerri Keller, executive director at the Career Center.

Despite the tough adjustment of helping students during a pandemic, Keller said the Career Center persevered.

“We’ve moved almost everything to virtual formats and still been able to provide everything that we typically would,” Keller said. “We still had 95 percent of last year’s class reporting employment or going on to graduate school.”

Going into the fall of 2020, the time where most recruiting is done, the Career Center was forced to move their all-university career fair online.

“We had some things already in place and so we just kind of shifted everything to exclusively online,” Keller said.

For big corporate employers such as Cargill, the shift to online had quite a learning curve, Mark Hosmann, Early Career Recruiting Leader at Cargill, said.

“The first thing we had to figure out was what technology the schools were using to facilitate virtual recruiting,” Hosmann said. “There were about 10 different technology platforms being used by different universities to facilitate those events, and most of those platforms we had never worked with before, so our team had to quickly learn those.”

At other universities, Hosmann said his experience was, “a mixed bag.”

“We had some events at some schools where we had a really large attendance, very engaged students, and we had some events where it didn’t go very well,” Hosmann said. “With every event, we never really knew what to expect.”

Despite the pandemic, Hosmann said Cargill thrived and hired 700 university students this year, a similar number to years past.

Of the 700 students hired on average each year, 50-60 of those are from K-State. Hosmann said K-State produces one of the largest groups of students hired from universities each year.

“We do tend to get strong students from K-State, and they perform very well at Cargill,” Hosmann said.

Hosmann and Keller both said that even before the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, the recruiting process had some online elements, such as Handshake and Linkedin, but the pandemic caused these platforms to explode in popularity.

“For students to be able to do those interviews virtually and not have to travel all over made some of that process quicker and easier,” Hosmann said.

Jenna Rose, K-State alumna and Operations Management Associate at Cargill, interviewed with about 20 different companies during a career fair. Rose said she found the virtual events to be more organized.

Rose graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics in December, accepted the job at Cargill in October and started working there in February.

She said she couldn’t visit any of the Cargill facilities before she started her job.

“Not going to see where I would be working was the most challenging part,” Rose said. “I felt like I was going into it a little blind.”

Hosmann said the backout of jobs rate is the highest it has ever been at Cargill and he said he thinks the virtual experience plays a role.

“When everything has been done on a virtual capacity, I don’t know that those same connections or loyalties are there as they have been in the past,” Hosmann said. “They’ve been to the site, they’ve worked with the people in-person, they’ve built those meaningful connections.”

However, Rose said she preferred the virtual career fair to an in-person event.

“When I went to in-person career fairs in the past, I felt like there were so many different booths that it was hard to talk to the actual people you wanted to talk to,” Rose said.

Since virtual fairs do provide convenience for both employers and students, Hosmann said it is possible for virtual events to have their place in the future alongside in-person events.

“What’s the right balance between in-person events, fairs and connections with students that way versus continuing to do outreach through online platforms, and how do students want to find jobs?” Hosmann said. “That will heavily influence how employers do their work going forward.”

Keller said a lot of companies were disappointed they couldn’t connect with students like they normally do.

“A lot of the employers really want us to offer in-person career fairs again on campus because we want to connect again with real live students,” Keller said.

She said the main advantage of in-person events is what she referred to as, “planned happenstance.”

“There’s a lot of things that happen kind of spur of the moment,” Keller said. “A student walks around the concourse and maybe sees an interesting booth for a company they would’ve never heard of.”

Emily Warriner, Managing Director for the Center for Risk Management Education and Research, said the virtual aspect made it easier for her to get higher-up executives to speak with the student fellowship due to the convenience of Zoom.

Warriner said the Center for Risk Management Education and Research aims to connect students interested in risk management with industry partners and prepare them to be in the workforce.

She also said maintaining the relationships with those industry partners takes more communication due to not being able to meet them in person.

“It was difficult because I had built a relationship with these students over the past year, and they were graduating and we were sending them off into the workforce without getting to say goodbye,” Warriner said.

However, Warriner said students understood the situation and appreciated the changes made.

More information about Handshake and the services the Career Center provides can be found on its website.