Why the corporate world is losing the race for talent


It wasn’t long ago that getting a job at a big corporate company was the goal of every talented, ambitious student.

Here Aidan Cramer, Co-founder and CEO of JobLab, the platform connecting talented graduates with tech startups explains these were powerful global businesses that promised security for decades so long as you were willing to show up every day and work hard.

But then, in 2008, things changed. The collapse of Lehman Brothers seemed to be proof that no company could truly guarantee security, and if that were true, then the prospect of working for a big corporate suddenly sounded a lot less appealing.

At around the same time, the digital world was taking shape. Apps were promising more convenience than ever before, and for the younger members of the millennial generation and their successors, generation Z, this not only suggested that there was a new, radically different set of career options in the ascendancy, but that a ‘good career’ didn’t have to mean formal clothing, giant offices, and strict working hours. With the internet, went the argument, there could be much more freedom than ever before.

As if this wasn’t enough to make young people think twice about a corporate career, established businesses have shown their vulnerability in recent years. On the high street, global businesses such as Toys ‘R’ Us collapsed. Blockbuster disappeared.

Even Nokia, once the undisputed leader in mobile phones, faltered. In the eyes of millennials and generation Zers, it might make more sense to choose work that is meaningful, or to work in a business with a strong company culture.

The corporate world failed to anticipate these changes in perspective. It rested on its laurels. If it wanted to attract the brightest young talent, it should have been undergoing rapid digital transformation and looking for ways to offer the flexibility, responsibility and meaning that young people increasingly want. Even years later, these companies are struggling to make the changes necessary to retain and attract talent. It’s often you hear from people at these sorts of companies that there’s constant ‘bleed’: young people join, get trained and then leave — as studies show.

All this may not have mattered if there wasn’t an alternative. And that alternative is the startup scene. Startups can’t always promise security, but they can promise flexibility, autonomy and responsibility almost as soon as you walk through the door.

They tend to have smaller, tight-knit teams, and many have a social purpose. They can promise hungry graduates that they’ll learn skills quickly, and be able to feel tangibly the effect they’re having on the company’s success. At a big corporate, in contrast, change is slow; it’s like turning an old ship. That isn’t the case at startups, which by their nature are fast and agile. There’s no other way to be in the tech space if you want to survive and thrive.

Because the startup scene is booming in the UK, graduates are taking a chance that they can find another job elsewhere if everything goes south. But even if that were not the case, grads that leave a startup will still have developed skills and gained experience that they can take with them to a more ‘traditional’ job, if that’s what they want to do. And there’s also a perception that the big corporates are elitist, or tend to select based only on grade-scores and level of education.

This can only harm their hiring efforts: grades are not thought to be of ultimate importance in the startup space. And in fact, in the second quarter of this year, more than half our hires were from non-Russell Group universities.

Some will say young people are entitled. The marketing guru Simon Sinek said young people were ‘thrust into the real world’ only to find out ‘they’re not special’. But there is plenty of evidence that millennials are hard-working and ambitious, and the simple truth is that for many of them, they know they have options and they know that the fate of a company can change in a moment.

They’ve grown up in a digital world that empowers individuals armed only with a laptop and smartphone, and watched big, household-name companies make headlines for all the wrong reasons. Why stick around if they don’t find the work engaging? In the long-term, it will be to the detriment of the business as well.

If corporate companies think that they make attractive prospects due to prestige or wealth alone, they’re mistaken. If they want to compete with the hottest startups, they need to offer young people more. In the current employment landscape, talented young people know they don’t always have to compromise and will change jobs until they find the right one.

And at the moment at least, it’s the startup scene that seems to be offering the meaning, culture, flexibility and autonomy that young people really want. And that’s why, in the race for talent, the corporate world is losing out.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash