When reviewing postsecondary options, I had only one clear objective: get a job. I am a poster Gen Y child – my baby boomer parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be, much like my fellow Gen Y counterparts. The reality is – that albeit my family’s confidence and enthusiasm – I spent the majority of my post-secondary years confused on what I would do after graduating. I was paralyzed by this dichotomy of wanting to be paid a good salary with a great employer, but being so unsure about my abilities that I wasn’t confident on what I could land. All my friends were in the exact same position as me, so what really set me apart from everyone else? My observations tell me that for the most part, Canadian students are unaware of the possibilities outside of the roles and companies that they know of, and that B2B companies looking to attract recent graduate talent are using the same recycled recruitment strategies, which aren’t always effective. Since graduating 5 years ago, I’ve been in both sales and recruitment positions, ultimately leading me to the position of Director for The Great Canadian Sales Competition. The Great Canadian Sales Competition is Canada’s Biggest Student Competition and it is meant to get students educated about sales as both a lucrative and exciting career path, as well as a critical skill set. In our second year, we attracted 1,550 students across the country from 70 different schools. This represented a 700% overall growth from our previous year. Of the students I have had the privilege of speaking with, I can say that the thoughts and concerns I had when I was on the brink of graduating 5 years ago still ring very true for most students today.
Let’s consider the numbers here. The average debt for a student graduating post-secondary school is $27,000. The average salary for a student coming out of school is $45,000. The unemployment rate for youth across the country is 14.5%. The number of companies students know off the top of their head --my anecdotal evidence says about 10. We hear the same kinds of business-type jobs many times (accounting, consulting, finance, human resources, public relations, even starting their own business) with the same big, often consumer based companies that they know of, who they have likely seen ads for all their life. So, if you are a B2B company, looking to hire sales talent, your issue is twofold: students likely don’t know who you are, and even if they did, they aren’t interested in working for you in a sales capacity.
I’ve facilitated hundreds of presentations from coast to coast about perceptions vs. realities of B2B sales. When I ask how many students are looking to get into sales, I typically get one, maybe two (and often very hesitant hands) in the air. When I ask them why they aren’t interested in sales, it appears that the salesman stereotype is the cause. It seems as though they watched Danny DeVito playing Harry Wormwood in Matilda, as a slimy, lying car sales man and have it all figured out. Students aren’t interested in sales because they think it’s about earning 100% commission, needing to lie to people, selling things that people don’t want, cold-calling all day long, limited room for growth – the list truly does go on. If a student is interested in going into sales, I ask them who they know that is in sales (there is always someone) and they will mention a relative or close friend that is working in a lucrative and challenging B2B sales role. In a lot of ways, sales has developed such a strong and distasteful reputation that students remain skeptical until they either get hands on experience, or hear it first hand from someone they trust. As such, we developed The Great Canadian Sales Competition to give students an opportunity to practice sales and get exposure to B2B companies they likely hadn’t considered before.
Regardless of whether you are hiring for sales talent or not, recruiting junior talent is a shared responsibility between students and employers. It is the students’ jobs to open up their minds to possibilities outside of what they think they already know. However, it is also up to the employers to recognize that, as impressive and fruitful as your company may be, if you are a B2B brand, a student has likely never heard of it, or at the very least, has never considered working for you. The harsh reality here is that an hour at a recruitment booth will likely not change their minds. So what are the options or both parties?
1. Open your mind to options you haven’t considered yet.
Employers: Deciding whether to hire talent, experience, or both, is a very significant struggle for most employers in Canada. In “5 Moneyball Tactics to Building a Winning Sales Team” Jamie Scarborough, Co-Founder of Sales Talent Agency and The Great Canadian Sales Competition, positions it well saying “while your ideal hires would have high talent and great work experience, those are also the most expensive candidates and the hardest to attract. You can’t always afford those candidates, who are too close to the peak of their sales careers. So you need to focus on candidates with a little less experience who—with some training and development—could be up and running in less than six months.” Hiring junior talent is risky if you do not have the infrastructure in place to equip them for success, but if you have great training and great leadership, your company could develop an up-and-coming sales rockstar.
Students: You don’t know what you don’t know. I know it’s your instinct to run to the employers you already know, but the reality of the situation is that 80% of Canadian businesses are made up of small-medium sized businesses. Consider this: there are over 2.5M businesses in Canada, and only 21,000 of those have more than 100 employees. By only focusing on the B2C space and/or companies that you recognize, you are significantly reducing your options. Along my travels, I have challenged every student that I meet to learn about 2 new companies every day. The reasons for doing this are simple: get a scope of how large to the B2B space is and have a roster of employers to approach after you graduate that is much more prolific than your fellow competition.
2. Remember the basics: have a compelling value proposition and know it like the back of your hand.
Employers: Knowing what your company does and what makes you best in the space is a critical component to recruiting top talent. We tried this exercise internally about a year ago where we asked what made Sales Talent Agency the best in the recruiting space. All of our answers were good, but not consistent. Having a consistent value proposition – and one that resonates with every member of your company – is absolutely critical to recruiting top talent. If a student has never heard of your company before, try not to get lost in the jargon. Your job is to quickly explain what you do and why you do it. If you are passionate about what your company does, that energy will be contagious to a student eager to learn about you.
Students: You must have a good value proposition. The reality here is that there are a lot of students who have high GPAs, are involved on campus, have travelled, perhaps speak another language, or choose to volunteer on their free time. I am always amazed by the calibre of students I meet at networking events, but have yet to meet a student who hasn’t stumbled on this question: why would someone hire you? Deciding what sets you apart from the rest is a reflective exercise. Take a look at your resume, and line by line, ask yourself why that point matters. If you do not have an answer, remove it from your resume. When you’ve considered what you have done (and more importantly why you’ve done it) find the commonality -- that one or two sentences on why an employer would hire you is your value proposition. Hint: if your roommate has the same answer, it is not a compelling value proposition.
3. Don’t be a passing connection.
Employers: We all know that technology has allowed us to connect easier, but building a strong and meaningful connection with a prospective candidate, is difficult behind a cyber wall. Your time is valuable and finding time to go for individual coffee chats with prospective candidates is likely unrealistic. That said, sending out a personalized follow-up e-mail to a prospective candidate afterwards that invites them to reach out in your hiring season is likely to yield more stickiness. Even better, hosting an open house or shadowing opportunities for prospective candidates is an innovative and effective way to give someone an up-close perspective of what your company does and who your company is comprised of. Relying on your website or a mass-email chain to make a lasting impression is likely not strong enough. Challenge your team to come up with innovative ways to recruit top talent. The Great Canadian Sales Competition was developed shortly after a discussion on how we, as a company, could better entice junior talent in the sales industry.
Students: There is a distinct difference between networking and active networking. Networking is meeting someone at an event, asking for their business card, sending one follow-up e-mail and maybe adding them to LinkedIn. Active networking will set yourself apart from your peers. Sending the follow-up e-mail and adding them to LinkedIn is still a best practice, but beyond that, follow up semi-regularly with a tangible ask or goal in mind. For instance, let’s say that you followed the company on social media and saw that they are hosting an event in the next two weeks. Get in touch with your contact and see if the event is open to the public, and if not, if there are any other opportunities for you to network with their team. If the company has been featured in the media, write a quick note to your contact congratulating them on their appearance and remind them that you are still interested in joining their growing team. My advice is to be an active candidate for a few companies, rather than a passing candidate to many companies.
In conclusion, I am nearly 5 years out of school, and sitting on the employer side. This has given me a great dual-perspective on what students could be doing better to land great jobs, but also what employers need to be considering when attracting top talent. The reality is that competition is fierce for students, and knowing that there is such a large talent pool available to us, sometimes halts our motivation to innovate our recruitment strategies. That said, in order for a true relationship to take place between a candidate and a prospective employer, the onus cannot fall on one side. I challenge students to step outside of their comfort zone and take one step towards creating a meaningful connection with a company they had not yet considered. I also suggest for employers to seize the opportunity to engage with these passionate students.