When your talent acquisition strategies don’t work for technical roles

Posted January 17, 2018 by


EY is known as one of the Big Four accounting firms, not for being a tech giant. And yet, like employers across the world, they are seeing an increasing need for technical skills in their workforce. Laura Mills, Faculty and University Relations Consultant at EY, spoke to us about shifting their talent acquisition strategies to better approach college students about careers in consulting cyber security, user experience, programming, etc.

Talent acquisition strategies for candidates with in-demand skills

Not changing your strategy is “an arrogant perspective that will fail”.

EY has always been very successful at recruiting business students. However, applying the same strategies to technical students doesn’t work. Mills illustrates, “It’s like trying to put a square peg into a round hole”. Technical students have different schedules, motivations, and processes when they are seeking a job. A company needs to understand each cohort of candidates, and not try to force the candidate to fit their process.

Giants like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are often the companies that come to mind when students think about finding a technical job. Finding the right talent acquisition strategies becomes that much more when your candidates don’t understand the value proposition of working outside a totally technical environment. Therefore, it is necessary to be deliberate in recruitment when in “no man’s land,” says Mills.

Even the individual school can dictate a different strategy. EY is starting to look at programs that are more specialized in the digital arena to recruit candidates for user interface and user experience projects.

Balancing hard tech skills with soft skills

Getting your job posting right is a big help when it comes to attracting students with the hard skills you need. Mills describes job postings for EY that clearly target students with more of a technical background, spelling out the background they prefer, for example from “computer science, computer engineering, or information systems.”

However, that is not enough to find candidates who can balance both hard and soft skills. One strategy that has worked for EY so far is to recruit students with minors in computer science or information systems, instead of the “textbook CPA accounting major from the business school”. The minor is a good indicator that there’s at least some interest in those hard skills, and as long as you invest in needed additional technical training, those candidates can bring a welcome balance of softer skills.

The success of this strategy depends on the honesty of the candidate. “It’s a little bit of a dance when the student is in the recruiting process,” Mills points out. Often candidates will say what they think the employer wants to hear, instead of the truth. Recruiters want to know what their candidates really want. The point of recruiting is to not only find an amazing candidate that is a fit for the company, but also a position that is a good fit for the candidate.

Recruiting non-traditional students for technical roles

EY launched a new program called Gignow to hire students for short-term or long-term projects. Many of these hires come from non-traditional education backgrounds, and EY hires them for their skills, not their educational pedigree.

The Gignow application is done entirely online, and the first interview is via asynchronous video. The following interview, also via video, is live. Mills explains that for people who fit in really well, EY rehires them project after project.

Among EY’s talent acquisition strategies is to recruit non-traditional students by working with community colleges. Mills has noticed a change in recent years, seeing many more students starting their college education at community colleges and then transferring to finish their four-year degree.

Mills says that identifying those community college students at the transfer point is actually a disadvantage to both the students and the employer. The transfer students are in the midst of learning all the basics about their new school, such as getting around campus, getting along with their roommate, and figuring out their daily schedule. Compared to students who have already been there for two years, they have a lot of catching up to do. They don’t have the available time to worry about their job search yet. Therefore, EY is working with community colleges to bring awareness to students about career education before they transfer. Once students transfer, they will be primed and more capable to enter their job search, competing more fairly with their peers.

What benefits and perks will attract technical students?

EY is investigating to find the answer to this question. They will be doing focus groups and market research to see how they can pull technical talent their way. Mills and her team are not interested in providing new benefits and perks, “if what students are looking for already exists within the cohort of advantages of working with EY.”

It’s possible they will find that a non-tech employer can attract tech talent by featuring the advantages they already have. Mills says that their early research seems to indicate that students are looking for increasing challenges in their career, and for variety throughout their career. The “Googles” and “Amazons” of the world, says Mills, don’t offer this as well as an employer like EY can. They almost always hire tech talent to perform one function, repeating the same tasks day in, day out. The increasing challenges, career progression and variety throughout one’s career, Mills points out, is something that technical student can find elsewhere.

Effective interview strategies

This past year EY piloted video interviewing in some regions for their first round interviews. This allowed EY to reduce their traveling expenses, and it also gave students an opportunity to show how they engage with technology. With asynchronous interviews, students get the bonus of recording as many takes as they wanted, therefore presenting themselves in the best light.

EY has used case interviews to assess how well candidates can think on their feet. Asking students to explain how they would deal with a situation is a great way to examine communication skills. Here, Mills compares business students to students in technical fields. While business students often practice case interviewing throughout their academic career, technical students tend to lack this kind of preparation. EY’s solution is to work with career services on campuses to help technical students become more versed in case interviewing.


Six tips to adjust your talent acquisition strategies to fill technical roles

  1. Develop candidate personas. While the talent may be technical, they still have strengths, weaknesses and communication styles. Candidate personas help recruiters compare the actual candidates to the ideal. Be careful to not mix in characteristics or proxies that are not tied to actual job tasks, but make sure to include any non-tech skills that you believe are essential to complement or fit into your team. For example, their college or university should not be part of the persona. You should include what programming languages they know and other abilities to perform. What soft skills are lacking on your team that would help move business along? Discuss with staff who hold the role currently —and are successful in it—to fill this out.
  2. Keep in touch with candidates who you didn’t hire. You cannot be caught without developers or other technical talent, so if you lose an employee, you must have irons in the fire to hire quickly. This absolutely relates to how you treat your candidates during the hiring process. If you provide a positive candidate experience, and keep in touch with them despite not hiring them, then they will be more willing to consider the job again. In addition, make sure you are tracking data that will give you a picture of which skills predict success, and which sources provide the best candidates.

White paper: Fix talent acquisition mistakes to avoid bad candidate experiences

  1. Hire for skills, not degrees. Your top colleges or list of required majors may provide you with hires who can put their good skills to work right away. Your workforce, however, will rely increasingly on people who can regularly upskill or even relearn everything in five years. The elite degree or computer science degree that you think you need isn’t a promise of an adaptable employee. If you want to hire for the long-term, look beyond the out-of-the-box talent you get from your top schools and majors. If you prioritize the ability to grow and develop, it’s the on-the-job experience that brings more value to your organization than the courses they took, or the names of the institutions where your employees earned their degrees.

Related: Upskilling talent and 5 reasons to look past your top schools and majors

  1. Give candidates a hiring test earlier rather than later in the process. This relates to hiring for skill, not degree or other proxies. By giving all candidates a test, you may discover someone with real talent who you may have passed up due to a weak application, weak interview, bias or other factor. If you need talent to perform the first day on the job, this is what your test will show you. It’s best to give them a test that imitates the actual environment they’ll work in. According to DevSkiller, employers should “challenge a programmer’s skills with tests based on your company’s code base. Only then will you see if there is a fit between the company’s needs and the developer’s skills.”

Related: Lessons learned from an expert in pre-employment assessment

  1. Assess for applied tech skills. How well can they use their technical skills to drive business forward? Someone with applied tech skills can integrate people, processes, data and devices. To assess whether a candidate has these skills, ask them a question like, “How have you used technology to solve business problems”? or “How have you used cutting-edge tools to improve outcomes of a project or previous position?” You’re looking for someone who can demonstrate they know how to apply technology—social media, development tools, etc. in their overall strategy to improve efficiency, productivity, or other everyday business issues.

Related: Do you know what applied tech skills are? One skills gap analysis says recruiters should.

  1. Beware your bias. In particular, gender bias has gotten a lot of attention recently in the tech world. There are tools you can initially to mask the gender of applicants (for example, your ATS can remove names, or you can even anonymize a phone interview with tools that mask the candidate’s voice). Eventually, however, recruiters have to do the job of a human and overcome bias. During an interview, you must use a structured interview. A structured interview format is one in which all candidates (no cheating–this means ALL) receive the same questions in the same order, and are evaluated using the same metrics. You need clear criteria with which you’ll assess each candidate’s responses. Start by identifying or reviewing the competencies of the particular job. What is actually required to succeed in this role? Base your metrics entirely on this question.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted in Advice for Employers and Recruiters | Tagged Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,