Relationship recruiting


By Paul D. Smith, Executive Director – CACEE

Canadian media is full of reports arguing for and against the existence of a skills shortage in our country. Employers assert that they are experiencing a shortage, and urge governments to take action, while economists and analysts counter that their data denies that a shortage exists. Our association, the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE) has data suggesting that at least part of the problem is not that there exists shortage of skilled young workers, but that employers’ recruiting tactics are not finding the talent that is out there.

Disclaimer – there are real shortages of key skills in select regions and sectors.  Employers in western and eastern regions of Canada can demonstrate explicit recruiting challenges and there are nationwide shortages within select sectors (oil and gas, skilled trades, health). Notwithstanding these regional and/or sectoral shortages, however, there appears to be a disconnect between applicants and employers, and our data suggests that changing recruiting practices is contributing. Since 2007 CACEE has produced an annual Campus Recruitment Report that describes campus recruitment activities. I compared the reported recruiting activities from 2007 to 2013 and two trends emerged – a decline in ‘traditional recruiting’ techniques, and a corresponding rise in remote, or ‘digital recruiting’.

Remember 2007?  It was the peak year of the ‘War for Talent’ era. On campus, the ‘War’ was manifest in aggressive recruiting practices, inflated salary offers and expensive campaigns. Strong economic growth combined with demographic challenges (aging workforce, smaller generations) to create a seller’s market in the labour force – it was a good time to graduate.

Then, in September 2008, Lehman Brothers bank failed, setting off a historic collapse in the global economy. Recruiting budgets were frozen or cut, and visits to campus were curtailed. Traditional recruiting activities fell away, as did so much other commercial activity. But as economies recover, traditional recruiting isn’t. The financial collapse was a disruptive force in the global economy, but its impact on the demand for a skilled workforce was temporary. The same forces that led to the ‘War for Talent’ – economic growth and demographics – are beginning to assert themselves again, and Canadian employers can see what’s coming.

Perhaps they hope to avoid a return ‘War for Talent’ tactics. Many are experimenting with the new paradigm of ‘digital recruiting’ that emerged post-collapse. The growth of digital recruiting can be seen in the emergence of social networks such as LinkedIn and Twitter as recruiting tools. In 2007, less than one-quarter of Canadian employers used them, but by 2013 more than half of employers reported their use as a means to reach candidates. Digital recruiting leverages social networks to drive candidate traffic to corporate websites, where applicant tracking systems are used to screen candidates.

Digital recruiting, however, may be contributing to the appearance of a skills shortage – employers can’t find talent because they have changed how they look for it, and the new approach might not be getting the job done. If we can agree that a skills shortage is a supply and demand problem – an inadequate supply (young talent) is reaching those with demand (employers) – then follow this reasoning:

  • Is there less supply?
    • No, Canada is producing more grads than ever.
  • Is the supply of lower quality?
    • Harder to quantify, but difficult to imagine a systemic decline in the quality of education in half a decade.
  • Is the demand greater?
    • Probably not yet, at least not compared to 2007.
  • Has the way that demand is met changed?
    • Quite significantly.

Put another way, if the number of graduates has actually increased since 2007, and the skills they offer are similar, then this doesn’t look to be a supply side issue. Maybe it’s time to look at the demand side. Is it possible that the problem lies not in who is being recruited, but in how?

Comparing On-Campus Recruiting (OCR) activities from 2007 to 2013, consider this data drawn from CACEE’s annual On-Campus Recruiting Survey:

Table 1 On-Campus Recruiting 2007 – 2013

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Target Schools 25 11 13 7 8 8 5
Career Fairs % 81 81 65 63 55 56 58
Info Sessions 67 67 53 52 51 44 43
On-Line Social networks 24 23 23 34 37 47 46


The trends are clear: since 2007, Canadian recruiters have been disengaging from traditional campus recruitment practices, adopting the use of digital recruiting tactics, especially On-Line Social Networks (initially Facebook, but now LinkedIn and Twitter).  ‘Traditional recruiting’ is in decline, and ‘digital recruiting’ is ascending.

But digital recruiting doesn’t work for everyone. Social networks themselves pose one barrier – employers operating in sectors vulnerable to controversy (oil and gas) tend to shy away from engaging in the chaos of social networks. Another problem with social networks relates to how students see them. At a recent CACEE conference we heard from a student panel that they don’t pay much attention to jobs posted on a social network – they don’t feel a connection to the opportunity. They preferred to respond to positions posted on their campus electronic job board – they connected better with them.

ATS screening tools can be another barrier. Overly selective criteria can cause too few applicants to get through. In the 2012 book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs” author Peter Cappelli cites the case of a Senior Recruiter who came to suspect that they had set their ATS screening too high. To test it, he applied for a position for which he would be qualified within his company, and was screened out.

Recruiters are looking for options, and some of them are trying an approach that is working for them – let’s call it ‘relationship recruiting.’  At first glance, relationship recruiting looks a lot like the ‘traditional’ on-campus recruiting model, but it differs in two ways – timing and outcome. Traditional recruiting is transactional, and outcome based. It happens in a narrow window that opens with the school year in September and ends with accepted offers in November. It hinges on the job – students want them, employers have them, and for 10 intense weeks the two parties engage in a complex ritual to see who gets matched.

Relationship recruiting backs off that short-term outcome based approach, requiring employers to spend time on-campus building relationships with students, faculty and staff. Success isn’t measured by headcount alone – it is about building a foundation for next year, and the years beyond. It may involve:

  • partnering in experiential learning programs
  • speaking to 2nd and 3rd year classes about careers in your sector
  • sponsoring campus activities and scholarships
  • career fairs and info sessions

As one recruiter put it, “if we are talking to them for the first time in 4th year, all they are thinking about is whether I have a job to offer – it’s transactional.  If I talk to them in 2nd year, I get a chance to talk to them about what a career in my sector might be like – it’s about building a relationship.”

Recruiters who have tried this approach find that it works better than the traditional model but they warn it requires a leadership team committed to the long view. Companies that can’t commit to a two or three year development process will not buy-in to relationship recruiting. And that’s ok, because in a fragmented labour market with a distracted candidate pool one-size-fits-all doesn’t work. Employers need to determine which of these models works best for them, if any – perhaps a hybrid solution is required. Others will continue to innovate. Meanwhile, we have employers who need people and people who need jobs – let’s get past the debate about shortages, and let’s get productive.

CACEE is a national non-profit partnership of employer recruiters and career services professionals. Our mission is to provide professional networking and development opportunities, information, advice, and other services to employers and career service professionals. For more info contact: Paul D. Smith,, (613) 634-2359


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