October 26, 2021
Unpacking Student Perceptions of Job Market Competition
Job seekers hold a lot more sway and power in the current labor market than they did in the past. Countless articles have detailed the impacts of the Great Resignation, as employees across various sectors of the economy are seeking better working conditions and employers are struggling to fill open requisitions. But our latest research finds that among students recruiting for internships and full-time positions this fall, 65% feel that the job market is more competitive now than it has been in past semesters. How can we explain this disconnect?
How job applicants come to understand competition in the labor market is a complex issue that sits at the center of research I conducted over the past six years as part of my dissertation work as a PhD student in sociology. There’s no one single factor that produces perceptions of competition, but a web of multiple forces that can contribute to making a labor market flush with openings feel deeply constrained. Individual preferences, interactions with employers and recruiters, and structural features of the labor market all play a role in this web.
Individual Factors Shape Perceptions
Job seekers’ individual preferences and stress levels have a significant impact on their perception of competition in the market. In our most recent Student Pulse, two thirds of students noted that their stress levels this year were somewhat or significantly higher than in prior semesters, and more than a third of students rated their mental health as fair or poor. Stress, regardless of its source, can easily influence perceptions of various aspects of life, including the labor market. When students are stressed and struggling, everything can seem much harder.
Applicant preferences matter here, as well. Like employees across the economy, students seeking internships and full-time roles may also be reassessing what they want out of work and setting standards for what they expect in a company.
There is some indication of this happening in our data, as 57% of students somewhat or strongly agreed that there were many job openings, but they were struggling to find appealing roles. In my dissertation research, I found that student preferences for high-status firms play a not-inconsequential role in their perceptions of competition. One student commented:
“It’s interesting because there are more interviewing jobs than interviewees, but not all of those jobs are desirable … there are still somehow a few companies who have managed to convince … everybody thinks this is their only option, this is their goal.”
Employer Interactions Drive Student Sentiments
Although these individual factors certainly start to explain this competition paradox, it would be wrong to assume that this is the full picture. Companies and the ways they interact with students also play a large role in shaping how competitive students feel the job market is.
This was the central focus of my dissertation work, in which I followed 63 students looking for employment over the course of two years. Two factors stood out as significant that can also help explain this current paradox: uncertainty about outcomes and condensed timelines.
Uncertainty is a defining feature of university recruitment. Throughout my interviews, students described the application process as putting your resume into a black box and hoping for the best. They likened recruitment to online dating, describing how they were “ghosted” by companies who never responded to them, leaving them unsure of where they stood and what went wrong.
This uncertainty feeds heavily into beliefs that the market must be competitive. To not know why you were rejected or receive any response at all must mean there were so many applicants and that you are simply not good enough. One student spoke on this very openly:
“I guess it was just, ‘you’re not good enough.’ So, it’s just like, what’s wrong with me? Can I ever get something like this? Do I have the capability to do this? Even if I try my best, it’s not good enough.”
The relatively short “peak” recruiting season further adds to the pressure students feel when recruiting. Though not equally true across the board, several industries that recruit a significant number of students have exceptionally short turnaround.
These short timelines force students to act quickly or run the risk of missing out on opportunities. This makes the labor market feel much more competitive because there is always a risk of falling behind if you do not keep pace. For some students, this could even derail their searches for some time. One student described this situation:
“I’ve felt pretty discouraged because supposedly all the top companies complete all their internship spots by November, and I felt like I’ve let myself miss out. That has become a self-fulfilling prophecy because I feel like I’m too late and then more time passes and less applications are still open and so on.”
Our data reflect that students are stressed by timelines. 62% of students report that timelines were too early, 69% struggle to keep track of timelines, and 68% feel that short timelines prevented them from exploring all of their options. These tight timelines reduce the amount of time students have to think and prepare and, if they do fall behind, can lead to a smaller pool of potential applications, all contributing to increased feelings of competition.
Cultural Norms Influence Perceptions of Competition
Finally, both individual and labor market factors exist in broader social structures and cultural norms, and these can also deeply impact how competition is perceived.
Work from sociologist Ofer Sharone is especially revealing here. He studied job seekers in both the US and Israel, two countries with very different norms around the relationship between the individual and work. In Israel, the focus of employment is on building skills and credentials, which are not taken as indicators of personal worth. In the US, there is an immense focus on individual chemistry and the importance of finding work that suits you, expresses who you are, and even defines you.
Sharone finds that with these differences in norms, American job seekers are far more vulnerable to self-blame as they encounter any challenges in finding work and are more likely to end their search based on perceived personal failings. If work is an expression of self, any challenges in finding work are also reflective of the self. In this broader context, competition can seem even greater as people are primed to focus on their failings and inadequacies in the labor market.
Moving Beyond a Competitive Culture
Student interactions with employers and important structural features of the labor market point to how we might go about mitigating overwhelming feelings of competition that can hinder job searches and reduce applicant pools. Simple acts like responding to job applicants can go a long way in reducing uncertainty.
Additionally, when communicating with candidates who have not moved forward in the process, firms should aim to de-personalize rejection. Move away from vague language that suggests a lack of personal fit, and instead use language that highlights the difficulty of the selection process and the need to make a decision among a group of strong candidates.
Along similar lines, rethinking timelines can have a positive impact on student experiences in recruitment. Though Veris Insights finds there can be benefits to employers from recruiting early, the tight constraints of early applications can be overwhelming for students, particularly for first-time job seekers who won’t start their jobs until potentially months after they have accepted. Allowing more time for applications and interviews would offer both students and companies the opportunity to assess potential candidates and roles with more time and less stress.
Together, these responses can help to reduce the paradox of competition.