Startup Recruiters Reimagine 'Employer Branding' to Hire Recent Grads

Recent university graduates are asking different questions of potential employers as the pandemic abates. Here’s how one startup recruiter at a high-growth Chinese startup is preparing for the next campus recruiting season.

If you want to hire new grads, think about your employer branding first. (Image by Getty.)
If you want to hire new grads, think about your employer branding first. (Image by Getty.)
By Shelly Xu
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6 minute read

It’s Davis Li’s fourth year at WhaleBird, a Shenzhen, China-based startup that helps companies ship products to more than 200 countries and regions around the world. After helping the enterprise navigate supply chain chaos, Li now faces a new challenge: recruiting new graduates in a post-pandemic era.

Li joined WhaleBird, which has raised about $1.4 million since it was founded in 2013, as a marketing intern right after he graduated from college in Beijing in 2018, a year before the pandemic hit China. He soon switched roles and became a campus recruiter.

“A year into my job, I found out that I was more interested in talking to new hires and sharing my job hunting experiences with current students. So I switched to becoming a recruiter,” Li told The Org. “But then everything changed [when] the pandemic hit.”

China's schools and universities have faced irregular shutdowns since the pandemic first hit in 2019, creating an unprecedented challenge for those about to graduate and start careers. Even as pandemic precautions begin to fade globally, China still maintains a strict "zero-Covid" policy.

“The school schedule keeps changing, some even delayed their graduation date, making it much more difficult to look for jobs with a set starting date,” Li said. “With remote learning and shutdowns across cities, students also have fewer opportunities to do internships or work outside of school.”

During this past summer’s recruitment season, Li said there was at least a 30% decrease in the number of resumes submitted to his company, even though entry-level salaries increased by about 10% (with decent benefits and flexible work schedules).

As a result, Li and his colleagues are reevaluating WhaleBird’s hiring process to better prepare for the upcoming winter recruitment season, which usually starts around mid- to late-October. Employer brand -- or the reputation and company culture that WhaleBird will use to market itself to candidates -- is central to this reimagined effort.

Reimaging employer brand

After some research and a few online classes on company culture, Li decided to call on his previous marketing experience to focus more on company branding.

“Employer brand is becoming a key factor in the talent competition and determines the attractiveness of enterprises to talents,” Li said. “I studied a lot of companies’ online profiles and how they rebuilt and improved their recruiting process, and I realized that my company did not do enough on branding ourselves.”

The first thing Li did was to update the company's website. Li replaced the old-fashioned interface and rigid images with a more colorful and dynamic homepage.

“We live in an internet age, and the website becomes the face of our company,” Li said. “Without a good website, candidates will conclude that this company is small, local and risky. So naturally, they are reluctant to submit their resumes.”

According to a Linkedin report, 75% of candidates research a company's reputation as an employer before deciding whether to apply for a position at the company. Of those, 69% would not apply for a company's position if any unsatisfactory information was found. Therefore, in the future, the competition between companies is not only the products and technologies, but also the competition of talent attraction.

Since the launch of the new website, Li said the company saw online traffic increase as more customers and potential candidates have reached out to his company. WhaleBird will continue to expand its presence on social media platforms, including Tencent's WeChat and China’s version of TikTok called Douyin.

Many companies are also deploying artificial intelligence for recruitment efforts, like A.I. chatbots for 24/7 communication with job candidates. Li said he hopes to implement these types of programs at WhaleBird.

Lastly, providing candidates with a pleasant experience of the whole hiring process is key to employer branding, said Li. He stressed that with China’s strict pandemic restrictions, many candidates are unable to attend in-person job interviews. Therefore, he said communicating effectively with the candidates, and in a timely manner, is key.

“From job application and the invitation to rounds of interviews, companies need to enhance the job search experience at every touchpoint, improve candidate satisfaction and create a good employer image,” he explained.

What early career candidates are looking for these days

The pandemic in China has not only changed how employers build their brands, but also the ways by which candidates evaluate companies. For example, candidates now tend to ask more financial questions about companies' performance before, during and after the pandemic.

“Almost every candidate we have interviewed since last year asked me this question: 'How did your company deal with the national shutdown? What was your layoff rate, if any?'” Li said.

Li answers candidates with honesty: WhaleBird did suffer from overseas shipping restrictions during the height of the pandemic and laid off a portion of its 150-person workforce spread over China, the U.S. and Europe. The World Economic Forum reported that goods shipped between China and the U.S. via container ship usually spent 40 days in transit before the pandemic, but in 2021, hold-ups and delays in July, August and September increased that average to 70 days.

“It was a tough time for us,” Li recalled. “We put a lot of effort into communicating with our customers, but thankfully we didn’t lay off many employees as we switched quickly to operate remotely.”

As China eases some of its Covid-related restrictions this year, Li added that potential candidates are now focusing more on employers’ post-pandemic roadmap.

“Plans can often be ignored as an essential part of a company’s branding strategy,” Li said. “For this upcoming hiring season, I would make sure to lay out a clear plan of how we will recover from this past year’s final loss and be more creative in the future.”

Meanwhile, Li said, strengthening the existing company culture is another important component of employer branding that can boost recruitment efforts.

“Achieving a good employer brand is not just to spread outward for candidates. It is also necessary to understand how existing employees or senior management view the company,” Li said. “We need to strengthen employees' experiences to reflect the company’s culture and better present it to future employees.”

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