Workplace

Recruiting is broken for Gen Z tech candidates. New tools give managers hope they can fix it.

Recruitment startups aim to help tech companies access a more diverse candidate pool and help students access opportunities they wouldn't have had otherwise.

A cartoon drawing of an applicant and a recruiter talking to each other from separate computer screens.

The recruitment tool companies are all in on helping Gen Z find jobs, and making the process more fair than it was for their parents.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Jordan Brammer, a senior at New York University, said he used to apply to finance jobs through a mishmash of networks, like LinkedIn and Google. But after being ghosted by one too many employers, he realized he needed a better recruitment tool. He eventually stumbled across HIVE Diversity, a network connecting students and companies who might not have found each other otherwise.

Professional networking sites have been around for a while. LinkedIn, the dominant career development site, launched in 2003. But startups like HIVE have popped up relatively recently targeting young job seekers and claiming to tackle the access problem. In 2014, after finding themselves shut out of Silicon Valley jobs, three students at Michigan Technical University launched Handshake to create a more-equal playing field for students looking for job opportunities. It now serves more than 9 million users and reached a $1.5 billion valuation in May. Even TikTok wants to help young people find jobs — the platform launched TikTok video resumes in July.

The companies are all in on helping Generation Z find jobs, and making the process more fair than it was for their parents. "The tips and the tools are literally at your fingertips," said Christine Cruzvergara, Handshake's chief education strategy officer. "You can introduce yourself to a peer at your institution, you can go meet a recruiter or employer. Those are things that are within your control."

Hiring is a painful, belabored process both for the people desperate for jobs and for the places that want to hire them. Big tech companies constantly look for ways to optimize their recruitment strategies. As Facebook's engineering hiring crisis, Google's brutal recruitment process and a fake resume that garnered top tech interviews show, the system is often broken. And for young people breaking into the job market, there's the age-old issue of access. It often feels to them like they're sending your resume into the void. And if a candidate didn't attend a top school or doesn't have a "white-sounding" name, or if the candidate doesn't look or sound like other people who work at the company, recruiters may be biased against hiring the person.

The pandemic hastened the shift to primarily virtual recruitment, and to a greater reliance on these tools. Gone are the days of crowded in-person career fairs, or flying out candidates for stressful interview processes. Instead, companies and students turned to networks like Handshake, often aided by universities. If the hiring game was changing before COVID struck, it's definitely changed now. For young people, it may be changing for the better.

Jobs hunt for you, you don't hunt for jobs

Rembrand Koning, a Harvard Business School professor in the strategy unit, studies the rise of outbound recruitment in companies' hiring strategies. He became interested in the topic after realizing that most of the famous hiring bias studies looked at people sending their resumes to companies. "This is not what we're seeing in the world. We're increasingly seeing people getting poached," Koning said. "A recruiter is looking for someone, partly enabled by the rise of things like LinkedIn, partly enabled by changes in the labor market."

Koning and his colleagues analyzed the prevalence of outbound recruiting, finding that 18% of workers were hired by recruitment in 2020 as compared to 4% in 1991. The percentage increases when it comes to Silicon Valley workers, high-skilled workers and workers with LinkedIn profiles. The study looks at currently employed people, but Koning is working on another paper about how this change affects people entering the workforce. How do recruiters evaluate young people with little work experience?

As student recruitment networks grow in popularity, Koning said his biggest concern is ensuring that people are equally represented on the platforms. "Setting aside whether there's bias or discrimination from recruiters, if first-gen students aren't using these apps as much or aren't filling them out, then I worry it doesn't shift the playing field in any meaningful way," Koning said.

The makers of these tools want to host as many students from as many backgrounds as possible on their platforms; it's essential to their business pitch, and it's something they think about constantly. The goal is to help companies access a diverse candidate pool and help students access opportunities they wouldn't have had otherwise. Without a strong user base, neither of those things can happen.

A wider reach

Digital recruitment networks can broaden choices on both the student and company sides of hiring. The search is easier when everyone is in the same digital space and can search by category for the jobs and candidates relevant to them. Ariel Lopez, CEO of hiring platform Knac, said he believes strongly in the democratization of the recruitment process.

"The bigger vision here is making this process fair for everyone involved," Lopez said. "We want to make it faster and easier for the company to find the right people. But we also care about the people that are in your pipelines. They're more than just a resume. They're humans."

Lopez began her career helping brands and startups with recruitment. She went on to found Knac, which helps companies manage and give feedback to candidates in their application pipeline. She wants to eliminate the "black hole" of resumes and ensure companies aren't ignoring qualified and passionate people. Often even major tech companies have incompetent applicant management strategies, with candidates "swimming in spreadsheets," Lopez said.

Arsh Noor Amin, an engineering graduate student at Bucknell University, appreciates the consolidation of opportunities on platforms like Handshake. He can easily message recruiters and find software jobs that work for him as a student from Pakistan.

"When you're an international student, there's more logistical stuff that you have to think about because I would need sponsorship if I were to get hired somewhere," Amin, who participated in Handshake's study, said. "In Handshake, there's a little tag that companies can set saying they accept international students."

The consolidation helps employers, too. Renee Davis, director of recruiting at Duolingo, started using Handshake to find employees in March 2020. The game-changing aspect was being able to access such a large student network all at once. "What Handshake has enabled us to do is kind of change the landscape of university recruiting," Davis said. "We can send an email campaign to students at 25 different schools, see who's opened the message, be able to segment based on different fields and criteria and target for a follow-up."

Sometimes the tools are lacking in features, however. Andrea Robinson, a junior at UCLA who's looking for marketing jobs, said Handshake is useful for finding companies, but she'll still apply directly through the company itself. "Sometimes in the Handshake description, it will say 'you cannot apply through here,'" Robinson said. This disparity can make it confusing for students to navigate.

A more personalized process

Handshake released a report in October looking at how Gen Z navigates the digital job market. The main takeaways were that a majority of students, particularly women, feel that they don't need to meet in-person to make meaningful professional connections. The report also found that a majority, particularly students of color, feel that it's easier to break into careers compared to their parents' generation. Digital communication is often thought to be isolating, but for some, it's freeing.

"It's hard to sometimes be at an in-person event, and to know that some of the other students who may be louder or more vocal are going to eat up a lot of the time that you might have," Cruzvergara said. "When you do virtual, you have this dedicated space and time where you get a chance to really build a relationship one-on-one with somebody else."

HIVE, too, is focused on helping its candidates build deeper connections. Each student on the platform assembles comprehensive resumes, encouraged by HIVE to include as much information about identity and lived experience as they feel comfortable. "We're celebrating a wide range of diverse experiences, not slicing and dicing it in this superficial way," Senior Vice President Alexis McLaughlin said. The platform wants students to share their qualifications and interests beyond professional bullet points.

"I was able to project a really holistic view of myself to companies," NYU student Brammer said. "Instead of just a 'here's my resume and here are some facts about me,' it's more of an interpersonal connection through HIVE."

There's a slight barrier to entry with HIVE in that the platform puts its student users through various training sessions to make their applications more attractive to employers. It's free to join, but HIVE "makes our kids work," founder Byron Slosar said. "We say often, fewer resumes, better hires. The quick apply button is the fastest way to nowhere. It feels great to fire off 200 applications, but it feels worse not to hear from anybody."

As everyone discusses the "Great Resignation" and companies struggle to recruit the talent they want, some of the power has shifted to workers. A lot of the conversation centers around offering currently employed workers better benefits and pay, but it should be normalized for those entering the workforce as well. Messy recruitment processes can really turn qualified people off. "This war of talent is actually in talent's favor," Lopez said. "People can make demands right now, and companies will meet them. It's advantageous for any company to really be thinking, 'How do we rewire what we're doing here?'"

For recruitment tools, putting power in young people's hands is what it's all about. "You get to decide who you know, and you get to build the network that you want to have, and that is really powerful," Cruzvergara said.

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