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3 Steps to Attracting the Brightest Recent Grads to Your Startup Ruling out a huge portion of the talent pool in favor of an arbitrary hiring requirement is not the smartest move.

By Dan Lauer Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Which came first: The chicken or the egg?

For many college students looking to graduate this spring, the chicken-egg question is less a fun riddle than it is a harsh reality in today's employment landscape: They need experience to get a job; but they need a job to get experience.

Related: How Student Loan Debts Are Crushing Millennial Entrepreneurialism

A degree, unfortunately, is often not enough for graduates gain a job in their preferred field. And, with mounting student loan debt looming, many are forced to take jobs unrelated to those degrees. According to U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics data, as of June 2017, about 44 percent of recent college graduates and 34 percent of college graduates overall were "underemployed," meaning they were working in jobs that don't require a degree.

Larger economic trends -- such as the cutthroat job market -- are certainly at play here, too, but we still must ask ourselves how recruiting tactics at the company level contribute. Recent graduates may be ruled out by startups and small businesses because they don't have as much work experience as other candidates. But setting arbitrary prerequisites such as "three years of work experience" eliminates some of the most capable prospects from the talent pool.

Getting the graduates

Smart, hard-working graduates are easily trainable and will rapidly gain the experience necessary to thrive in their role. By contrast, hiring someone just because he or she meets the experience requirement could be a costly mistake, particularly if values are misaligned.

Newly minted graduates will generally command a lower salary than more experienced candidates, and they often add a new vitality to a company that's difficult to quantify. They're motivated to prove themselves early on, with innovative thinking and problem-solving, and they lack the bad habits more experienced candidates may have.

For example, during the Ameren Accelerator powered by UMSL, we selected 10 students from among more than 40 candidates to serve as paid interns. The cohort companies reported tremendous support and traction from student efforts in areas such as website development, social media management, research and other deliverables.

Related: 10 Steps to Hiring Your Startup's World-Beating A-Team

The right fit is critical: In the earliest stages of a startup, entrepreneurs won't be able to write large paychecks to employees. In the Accelerator situation, students and startup employees were generally similar in age and melded interests and culture seamlessly. After the Accelerator ended, half of the interns were hired by seven of the companies.

New employees, associates and partners in a startup are the lifeblood of a thriving organization. Founders have an idea and a passion, and fresh graduates bring a new perspective that can test assumptions and complement direction. For startup leaders who want to accelerate their company with fresh minds and an entrepreneurial culture, here are a few tips to attract and retain strong candidates fresh out of school.

1. Create a compelling culture, and live it out.

Purpose drives performance. According to a report by Gallup, about one-third of millennials surveyed saw their company's purpose as an important factor in making their jobs important, yet only 40 percent felt a strong connection to the overall mission and culture of their organization.

Core values and a mission statement are only part of the equation. To inspire employees, leaders must set a good example and make a pointed effort to cultivate the desired values in their employees. Communications must then reinforce those values. Entrepreneurs don't just bring a business model to life, after all; they establish a company culture with the decisions they make -- especially those involved with assembling a team.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield attributes 98 percent of his professional success to luck, and when he asks job candidates how much of their own success comes down to luck, he's looking for a similar percentage. Rather than trying to weed out arrogance, Butterfield looks for a high degree of humility. To him, humility indicates empathy, and empathy is necessary to design products that can anticipate end users' needs.

2. Don't mistake work-life balance for lack of ambition.

A 2016 Deloitte study indicated that millennials rank work-life balance at the top of all job characteristics, and opportunities for advancement was the next choice on the list. Millennials generally have higher degrees when they enter a job, and they want to be able to climb the ladder based on their performance.

Even new hires want to feel valued. Bringing recent graduates into important meetings and letting them voice their opinions helps them feel invested in the company. Take it one step further by also sitting down with employees to map out their career paths. A well-thought-out road map will give employees the opportunity and direction to push themselves, improve skills and, eventually, advance their careers. With more expanded skill sets, they can contribute to progress in overarching business goals as well.

3. Commit to authenticity.

Employees will go above and beyond for companies they believe in, but they can also detect a lack of authenticity immediately. Global Tolerance consultancy reported that 42 percent of the workforce prioritizes working for a company that makes a positive impact. Among millennials, this percentage rises to 62 percent, and it's a factor that's more important than making more money.

By demonstrating a commitment to values that goes beyond the employee handbook, startup leaders can attract and retain top talent at a reduced cost in addition to making a tangible difference in the world.

Related: Most Employees Hate Their Career Path. Here's How to Help.

In a job market where a college degree is becoming the price of admission, it's not uncommon for even entry-level jobs to require three to five years of experience. Ultimately, these employers are ruling out a huge portion of the talent pool in favor of an arbitrary hiring requirement. Recent graduates are not only itching to prove themselves, they're also bringing innovative ideas that can help revitalize stagnating startups and elevate entrepreneurial culture.

Dan Lauer

Founding Executive Director, UMSL Accelerate

Dan Lauer is the founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate, a St. Louis-based initiative that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship in and outside the classroom and helps bring concepts from mind to market.

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