Are competitions the new graduate job applications?

gradireland National Student Challenge logoThe gradireland National Student Challenge  has really hit a chord, not only with the nation’s students, over 4,000 of whom have already registered to take the online Challenge, but also with leading graduate recruiters. The Challenge is being run in association with Lidl and in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, EMC and Ericsson, and is one of a growing number of competitions aimed at students. So what do these top employers hope to achieve by getting involved in competitions like these, and what’s really in it for the students (apart from the prize-money!)?

We asked the employers involved in the gradireland National Student Challenge to find out what motivates them to support competitions. The first thing that comes to light is something that is often missed in all the talk of recession, austerity and cut-backs – there is still a fight at the top of the graduate recruitment food-chain for the brightest and best students. And companies are increasingly using competitions to identify top talent.

‘Challenges such as these can make a student’s CV stand out from the crowd’ says Paul O’Leary from EMC, who employ approximately 2,000 staff in Ireland. Nessa Kiely at Ernst & Young agrees: ‘The National Student Challenge offers students from all corners of the island a great online platform to showcase their skills to us.’

One of the difficulties faced by graduate recruiters is that candidates tend to be inexperienced, and need to find ways to add ‘flesh’ to the bones of a CV. Success in competitions can be a significant factor in getting noticed.

And a tip for career-minded students is that it is never too early to get involved in competitions and to get noticed. PricewaterhouseCoopers was Ireland’s largest graduate recruiter in 2011. As such, one of their priorities is to identify potential recruits at all stages of their academic career. Lorraine Toole from PwC explains: ‘We are constantly looking for new ways to develop and grow our talent pipeline, so we look to be involved in new and innovative events which will help us identify and recognise Ireland’s brightest students. Competitions help us identify leaders of the future during their formative college years.’

So why competitions rather than recruit traditionally via application and interview? The key differentiator is how these competitions are structured. For example, the online test and the Final Day Challenges which make up the National Student Challenge are all based on the core competencies that leading graduate recruiters look for in their graduate hires. If you perform well, you are already showcasing your employability skills.

Competitions also allow recruiters to meet potential recruits, which reverses the traditional approach whereby the written application is put in front of the recruiter long before the actual candidate is met. ‘The National Student Challenge Final Day will allow us to monitor students’ performance within a controlled environment – allowing us the opportunity to see them in action. This can be directly related to possible future performance in the workplace,’ says Paul O’Leary of EMC. This is a common theme with all employers involved – the opportunity to identify bright students and see them interact, communicate and complete Challenges is a very modern way to engage with possible future talent for their organisations.

However, for many students, with pressing work and exam commitments, the key question is – will this get me a job? Paul O’Leary of EMC is clear on this: ‘If, through competitions such as the National Student Challenge, we can identify high potential students who display our competencies then there is a very strong possibility of those students being offered a position within our organization.’ Equally PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young, who between them in 2011 took on almost 600 Irish graduates, are both using the National Student Challenge to identify ‘leaders of the future’ and ‘shining talent’ at all levels of study. This could lead  to possible internships for students in the early stages of their academic careers, or ultimately for places on their graduate recruitment programmes.

It is evident that there is more than prize-money or an iPad to be won by students taking part in competitions. Lorraine Toole from PwC sums it up nicely: ‘Academic study gets your foot in the door; employability skills push that door open to a far wider range of opportunities. Competitions like the National Student Challenge help students identify the skills they’ve developed inside and outside university, and explain just how transferable those skills are to every area of our business. Quite simply, experiences and achievements not only enrich students lives; they will also enhance their career prospects.’

The online element of the gradireland National Student Challenge is open until 29 February 2012; the top 60 students on the leaderboard will then be invited to attend the Final Day Challenges in UCD Quinn Business School on Wednesday 14 March.

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