College Professors are the New Headhunters

From conversations with clients, at networking events, and with friends, I keep hearing the same business problem showing up again and again:

We can’t find good talent!

This is a problem I have discussed in several places, but all of those articles discuss how to find and hire good talent. Businesses also need to figure out where they are going to find fantastic people to fit their carefully-considered job openings. Among the excellent suggestions are asking internally and meeting people at conferences and networking events, but I am often surprised that many businesses miss an obvious one:

Ask a college professor!

Most teaching professors have hundreds of students crossing their desks every year and, by the very nature of their courses, professors are assessing students’ work ethic, intelligence, creativity, guts, insightfulness, and ability to work with others. In short, faculty are already selecting for many of the very traits desired by the workplace, and only the best students will stand out. Given the extensive responsibilities of faculty, they have limited time to get to know students, and only the standouts are likely to make the cut. These students are not just the ones who get good grades, but the ones who show initiative, come to office hours with insightful questions, participate in class, and show potential for excellence in the field. In short, those are the very students you want in your talent pool!

In fact, with the rising tide of contingent faculty, we see many college professors spanning the professional and academic worlds. As such, they can comment not only on academic prowess, but also on whether students have the requisite job readiness and professionalism to succeed in the business world. This is especially true for entry-level positions, internships, and even positions that require a bit of experience (any student with whom a professor would keep in touch over the years is almost always worth interviewing!).

The caveat that is probably running through most heads right about now is that college professors are pretty hard to find unless they are adjuncts and/or clinical professors with business contacts. Thankfully, there are plenty of the latter, but even then the overwhelming majority of faculty do not want to answer emails from recruiters. That’s to your advantage! Since college professors are not required to link students to jobs or write letters of recommendation, they are going to volunteer this effort only for first-rate students that they believe are worth their very-limited time.

I offer myself as an example. An email from a recruiter is going to be deleted, and the sender’s future email routed to spam. I work 60–80 hours per week, and I have no time for recruiters. Because of conflict of interest, not only will I refuse any money for recommendations, I will be forced to report anyone who offers, so recruiters can’t even pay me as an incentive. But, if a friend or a business contact asks me if I know of a good student for a job, odds are very good that, since I teach a number of general courses that have a wide range of majors (Intro Psych, Statistics, Research Methods, and Intro Management), I know some pretty talented folks. Even in the semesters where I teach more specialized classes, I am likely to remember the better students, and might even be in touch with some of them. Though hundreds of students crossed my desk, I have made fewer than 30 recommendations to jobs. But, every last one of them was considered worthwhile for both the student and the company (in some cases, the fit between the student and company did not lead to a hire, but both parties felt that it was a good connection that was worth exploring!).

How do I connect with faculty?

The trick to this is remembering that faculty are the experts in the field, so start there. Here are some concrete suggestions you can use:

1. Invite them to speak on their work. Your employees can learn a lot from an expert, so paying a college professor to report on cutting-edge knowledge in the field is a worthwhile investment.

2. Ask them to conduct an in-house training session to enable your employees to develop new knowledge, skills, and attitudes based on the latest information in the field.

3. Ask them to consult on a project. Whatever the topic, these experts are likely to know far more than a generic management consulting firm, and they are likely to cost less because they don’t have the overhead of branding, advertising, and business development. (Warning: some universities do not allow full-time professors to consult, and others ask for a cut of the consulting fees as overhead. But, adjunct faculty are ripe for the asking, so start with them!)

4. Offer them a funded research opportunity. Research funding is scarce, and so are participants that aren’t college students forced to participate for course credit. If you can find a reason to let these faculty do research on your company (be it for a case study or an experiment), you will be able to learn a lot about your company for a reasonable cost. As a bonus, if they aren’t the right people to run the study, they may know who to ask, and you still get the contact.

5. Ask the career center to connect you. Some people in the career center are likely to have a pulse on which members of the faculty would be open to making recommendations, and they can intercede. (NB: This one doesn’t always work.)

6. Keep in touch with your professors. Build a strong relationship with them, get to know them, and learn from them. This is exceptionally hard to do, but is almost always worth the effort (keep in mind that this also requires you to work hard in the course and put in a lot of extra time.

Given the small conversion rate, is this worth it?

Absolutely! College professors are far more selective than both recruiters and the black whole where candidates’ resumes go. They are also more efficient in that they already put in the time to screen candidates, which means fewer rounds of interviews. Thus, you are likely to get quality almost every time if you have a good relationship with faculty. If you don’t have one yet, you are still in a position to create a win-win relationship by paying faculty for their expertise and getting the side bonus of asking them if they can recommend good students for jobs.

Pro-Tips

Do *not* cold contact faculty about recruitment; you will incur both their wrath and that of their colleagues, department, and university. You might even be banned from their career fairs.

Remember that faculty are at least as busy as CEOs (anyone without tenure works at least 60 hours per week; many work upwards of 100) — respect them accordingly!

You can’t pay them to recruit, but you can pay them to give lectures/trainings, consult, or do research.

Good students are always in high demand, so be prepared to roll out a red carpet if you get a recommendation.

The author thanks John Skylar for feedback on an earlier version of this article.

Originally posted on FutureIdeas (Part 1; Part 2)