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In today’s tight labor market, companies are reaching for new ways to recruit talent, but in some cases they’d be wise to embrace old-school solutions as well. An example: internships. “Employers have to understand that an internship is a stepping stone for creating the relevant talent that they require in this digitally transforming ecosystem,” said Vijay Swaminathan, co-founder and CEO at the talent-intelligence platform Draup. “Because of various movements in the labor market, organizations will be increasingly depending on early-career talent.”

Young professionals entering the workforce now and in the coming years will step into an environment whose long-time equilibrium was upset and permanently changed by the pandemic, remote work, and now the Great Resignation. Employers always need young, emerging talent, but especially now, as rapid skill development and organizational agility are essential for future-proofing an enterprise.

The key to building a positive early-career experience is, as Swaminathan said, considering how it will affect the larger organization. “Ultimately, everything we do adds into the bigger picture. It’s part of the funnel,” said Crystal Lannaman, head of talent acquisition and university relations at the global chemical company BASF. “Our internship program ultimately is impacting our senior leaders in the pipeline that we have for that. So the intentionality–even though it's an internship program–has to be holistic.” This means considering the interests of the young candidate, the business unit and manager, and short- and long-term enterprise needs.

Swaminathan and Lannaman participated in a recent From Day One webinar titled “Shining a Light on the Early Career Path in Your Company,” which I moderated. The expert speakers offered insights on how companies can attract young workers and cultivate their careers in mutually beneficial ways.

Finding and Recruiting Young Talent

Kevin Danaher, who leads campus and early career recruiting at the home-furnishings company Wayfair, emphasized that employers should start earlier than they might imagine. “Our stakeholders think that it’s just that junior or senior year from an internship and a full-time recruitment perspective, but we know that it needs to start earlier than that–and it can be as early as freshman year.” Danaher said that he aims to be very thoughtful about where he sources talent. “The last thing we want to do is post and see who applies.” His team focuses on specific programs, like business schools and data-analytics programs, as part of the scouting process.

BASF’s Lannaman looks at nontraditional talent pools. “Outside of community colleges, we also are working with high schools and other community groups, like mom groups, to tap into talent pools that traditionally wouldn't be talent pools, to give them exposure to what could be in the future,” she said. “So we’re a manufacturing company. And one of the things that we’re starting to run into is the fact that people don’t grow up and say, ‘Hey, I want to be an [equipment] operator when I grow up,’ even though you can make six figures. People don’t understand the benefits, the value, the career trajectory that comes with that.”

Helping Young Talent Picture Themselves in Your Organization

If employers are going to help young hires envision their future in a company, recruiters have to be clear about possible career paths. Swaminathan said that companies should consider three things the youngest members of the workforce are looking for: the long-term possibilities following their first role in the company, the soft skills that can help them grow and move throughout the organization, and the belief that diversity of experience makes innovation possible.

Focusing on early-career workers, top row from left: Vijay Swaminathan of Draup and Crystal Lannaman of BASF. Middle row: moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, Judith Almendra of TTEC, and Eric Di Monte of Warner Music Group. Bottom row: Kevin Danaher of Wayfair (Image by From Day One)

In this way, employer branding factors into attracting young talent. Employers without a name brand or with limited exposure to the general public have to be creative in how they pitch themselves to young hires. Judith Almendra, who is the VP of global human capital and talent acquisition at TTEC, a tech company that focuses on customer experience, said this: “It’s very important to make sure that we had the proper positioning, that we were caring for the things that are relevant to candidates.”

For TTEC, that means talking about the company’s purpose and about diversity and inclusion in the company. It also means being where young candidates are, like social media, and “leveraging those that have experienced the company, to tell the story through testimonials,” Almendra said.

Warner Music Group’s director of talent acquisition, Eric Di Monte, has an easier job to a certain extent–many will recognize the company’s name and work, but not everyone will understand how they might fit in. “We’re not just talking about it from the music perspective, per se, but it is an actual company with all the other departments that you would see in any other organization, particularly the corporate side.”

Having a diverse workforce is crucial, he added, because it helps his team attract talent who can see themselves reflected in their company makeup. “The more we are looking at the diversity aspect of it, then we're actually in a better situation to expand our own panel of students and potential employees.”

Appealing to Young Workers With Non-linear Career Paths

Younger workers, particularly those in Generation Z, are less interested in traditional, straightforward career patterns, and panelists said employers should keep this in mind when pitching their company to them. “The new buzz is career lattice,” said Lannaman, which gets away from “the ladder of thinking that there is only one step up. They’re able to build [a career] based on what they're interested in and their skill sets and their passions.”

At TTEC, satisfying the appetite for creative career growth can be as simple as understanding employee aspirations, Almendra said. The company’s “iAspire” program helps employees find training and roles that help them reach their future goals, whether inside or outside TTEC. “There are places we can help take them. We work with Fortune 500 companies–they are our top clients–so we can help [young employees] reach those aspirations.”

Lannaman said BASF is piloting a talent marketplace in which managers can announce projects and employees can volunteer to work on them. “It’s an online tool where managers or employees can post projects, and employees across the region can vie for them or raise their hand to be considered.” The goal is to encourage non-vertical skill growth across the organization that might not otherwise happen.

Getting Hiring Managers on Board to Hire Early Career Talent 

Because developing early-career workers demands more time and investment from leadership, it can be a challenge to foster enthusiasm among hiring managers about this demographic. This is where Almendra believes that bringing in young workers through internship programs can help. “The leadership development, internships, as well as the talent accelerator program we have had, allow us to prove to them the value that an early-career professional brings to their organization,” she said.

Danaher quantifies the value of young workers for his managers. “I think it’s being creative about how you're presenting the candidate base to stakeholders,” he said, “but also understanding and showing data around the fact that former interns typically perform better and they stay longer because they've had the ability to ramp up earlier and they’ve worked with managers before.”

Another way to encourage this: Danaher said having a pipeline full of young talent helps preserve diversity in an organization in which hiring can sometimes become a fire drill. “What suffers sometimes in that situation is a diverse candidate pool coming through.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.