Students graduating from Cambridge

Organisations need talent. Cambridge University has plenty of it. In theory, therefore, running the Cambridge Careers Service should be the easiest job in the world. In practice, of course, it’s not. The sheer abundance of talent here combined with the University’s organisational complexity, makes this a noisy space both for those looking for a job and for those looking to hire.

Our role is to help filter out some of that noise, to bridge the gap between the University and the outside world and to give our students and post-docs good, impartial advice. This Christmas, Covid-19 will not have stopped parents, grandparents, well-meaning aunts, uncles and family friends gathering on Zoom to quiz our students about what they are going to do with their lives - and giving them the benefit of their advice. That’s great. But the problem with it is that everyone’s got their own angle – and we don’t. At the Careers Service, our students and post-docs can talk about their future with somebody who doesn’t have a direct stake in it. We also work hard to make sure that everyone who comes to us is treated as an individual, that our advice is designed for, and specific, to them.

Our aim is to open their eyes to all the opportunities that are available to them – not just the obvious ones - whilst also providing them with the tools and skills to evaluate them critically and understand what matters to them. This will not only help ease their transition into their first role but enable them to continue to make good choices as they progress in their career.

Working closely with employers is an important part of that process: we want to help them find the talent they need but always in ways that will benefit the students and post-docs. There are two main ways we engage with employers: ‘recruitment’ and ‘education’. By recruitment, I mean the conventional careers fair approach when you put recruiters in the same space as job hunters. We run a number of these kinds of events and they are highly effective. But the educational side is also important if we are to properly inform students about their options. To do that, we invite alumni to talk about their careers and senior leaders to talk about their organisations. We also run sector briefings and panel discussions, where, for example, we might bring together people with the same degree who are now doing very different jobs to show how one subject can take people on very different paths. 

We are also fortunate to have access to national data on graduate destinations, supplemented by our own information about how individuals engage with the Careers Service and where they end up. All of this valuable insight helps us both to better inform students and to help employers think about new ways to access talent and contribute to the knowledge base in the sector.  

Going virtual

We initially wondered how we would run our careers fairs with everyone working from home during the pandemic. Usually, we would have had stands in the University Centre staffed by representatives from a wide range of organisations but in 2020 we held them online for the first time. We had a lot of positive feedback and there were some unforeseen benefits.

As well as listening to group presentations, our students were also able to book ten-minute, one-to-one appointments with individual recruiters. We were able to get a wider range of representatives from the organisations involved, with different post-holders able to dip in for their session and not spend most of the day out of the office. The students also valued the time that was ring fenced for one-on-one discussions which can be difficult to achieve in the physical setting with large number of people passing by the stands. For some, this was perhaps a more fulfilling experience.

However, I worry that the online format is not helpful for students who are less confident or are perhaps not at the point in their career journey to take the step of booking a one-on-one. In ‘real life’, those students might have been in the crowd around a stand, overheard conversations between employers and other students and then used that information to help them make decisions. Some employers also found that they haven't had the number of conversations at online fairs that they would have expected in person. This might be part of the same issue. In an online environment, you might miss the conversations that arise when students pass by physical stands and stop to hear more.

Top 3 tips for employers

1. Make personal connections – and use the technology to do so

Students really value the personal element and we have a couple of online platforms that can help facilitate some of these connections.

Handshake is a new platform which can be used by students, staff, alumni and employers from different universities. It acts as a single interface where we host our careers fairs, a vacancy board and a networked messaging community. Companies can message those students who have opted to make their details visible on the site to start a conversation about current vacancies. The platform can also help employers find talent from a particular degree discipline or with a particular type of work experience. One of the aims of the platform is to help employers engage with students who might not have thought that their skill set could be a good match for an organisation. We are early adopters of the platform in the UK and potential employers can choose to post at Cambridge or across the network of eight (so far) other participating universities -  creating advantages of scale, for both the students and employers.

Alumni Careers Connect puts students in touch with people who have a Cambridge connection (such as our alumni) to get an insight into a particular role or organisation at a more personal level. Encourage your Cambridge alumni employees to join this community.

2. Be authentic

In my experience, connecting on more of an individual level rather than through any kind of advertorial platform, results in greater interest and better engagement. Students very quickly see through glossy presentations. What they really value, both from the Careers Service and prospective employers, is time and meaningful conversations.

3. Be aware of echo chambers

What I mean by this is the tendency for organisations to engage with the kinds of students that already know about them. For example, if you are a law firm, by all means engage with the Law Society but be aware that those students are likely to be the ones that will apply to you anyway. If you are looking for advocacy talent, why not cast your net a bit wider and try the debating society, for example? We want to help employers find the talent that they wouldn't necessarily come across and show students how their skills and interests could lead them into a rewarding career they hadn’t necessarily considered.

Today’s students are graduating in uncertain times. Some sectors are flourishing while others – such as the arts – are facing huge challenges. In addition, many students are feeling isolated and disconnected right now. But there are plenty of grounds for optimism, if they know what career they want to pursue and if they are able to be creative in how they pursue it. We are here to support them in that process. To make sure we do that as effectively as possible we are keen to engage with employers of all shapes and sizes to understand what works both for them and for us – and what doesn’t. Ultimately, this will help us deliver a better experience for our students and postdocs and for our external partners.

Jenny BlakesleyJenny Blakesley
Director, University Careers Service







February 2021