In today’s competitive talent market, it is not easy to succeed in attracting and hiring top candidates. Even if you do manage to succeed, your new hires may not possess the competencies you expect, or they may adjust poorly to the culture of your organization.

A key question talent leaders ask is how to approach recruitment to maximize their investment in new talent—to properly identify and prepare top job prospects.

One of the answers is certainly: Start early, even before the candidates become your employees. Many companies agree that it is best to start talent development efforts when potential candidates are still students—in high school or university.

This article presents an approach that NIL Ltd., an IT company, has followed for over a quarter of a century. This proven model for talent acquisition has yielded excellent returns.

Starting early, NIL Ltd. offered powerful summer boot camps for high-school students, beginning in 1993. This program has evolved into an internal student program for university students, aiming to ensure early engagement. The participants gain the right skills for the job—while also acquiring a deep understanding of the organization’s culture.

Summer boot camps brought in promising talent

The original NIL Ltd. strategy to engage talent early was a summer boot camp, where applicants were accepted using the “first come, first served” principle. With growing interest, the company introduced selection criteria, in the form of an online assessment validating the applicants’ theoretical and practical skills. The top ten candidates made it to the boot camp.

The first boot camps comprised mainly technology sessions—a quarter of a century ago, the hot technology was “internet”—and practical work. Very soon, though, the company switched to a broader technology fundamentals course augmented by practical work and assignments.

The breadth of technologies covered and the associated assignments immersed the participants in the everyday reality of the company. The participants were divided into groups and worked on a specific case reflecting a simplified customer requirements document, or CRD.

Once the students completed their assignments, they presented their solutions to a “committee” consisting of top experts in their respective technological fields and key management representatives.

This approach accomplished two goals: It ensured a comprehensive evaluation of the technical quality of the students’ work, and it helped the company identify other strengths of the students, such as presentation and sales skills or a spirit of innovation.

Jan Bervar participated in the very first summer “boot camp,” and for him, it offered tangible proof of the reputation the company enjoyed in the public:

“The summer school was the first contact I had with the excellence associated with NIL in public. I knew I wanted to work for the very best company in my chosen field of IT, and here they were, proving it at every single moment. The summer school was thus the final reason for sending in my CV, and never regretting it since.”

The model evolves

While the summer boot camps were intensive, they were also packed into one or two weeks. Participants were a bit too separated from other employees—the only contact they had with the company was through their instructor and the committee that evaluated their final project.

Since the turn of the millennium, the company has further modified the student talent development program, including the recruitment method. Now, selected candidates become part-time members of a company team, supported by a mentor. After a certain period, during which the students become familiar with the company and its processes, participants are offered a place in a program for talented students. The program is very granular. It accommodates the students’ schedules, as they all have to balance their study with their part-time participation in the company.

The program consists of a series of technology-related courses, each of which is about two hours. These are recorded and accessible later through the learning management system (LMS). Non-technical skills such as communication, presentation, writing, and sales are also part of the program. The assignment is a key part of the program, and students still make their presentations to key people from the company.

This program produces well-rounded young people who know and fit the company and its culture. The best candidates are offered permanent employment—but only after they complete their studies. What has proved especially positive about the student program is its breadth and flexibility—both for students and for the employees who run the program.

As for the downside: The investment is much larger than for short summer boot camps. In addition, there is no guarantee that participants will accept a job offer, as the talent market is highly competitive. However, the company’s attractive environment and students’ exposure to and comfort with the corporate culture are excellent incentives.

Timotej Jerala Cesnik, a participant in the 2018 program for talented students, has recently taken a job at NIL. He credits the program with making him feel more confident about the job in the company:

“The program gave me great insight into what I would be doing as an engineer working at NIL. Working on a mock customer project exposed my strengths—and, maybe even more importantly, weaknesses that I later had to work on to prepare me to become an even better engineer.”

Three takeaways for integrating talent into your environment

Through a quarter-century of experience in attracting young talent to the company, NIL Ltd. has learned three key principles:

  1. Make sure you constantly modify your approach following the principles of learning and the needs and availability of participants. An example is the evolution from condensed summer boot camps to a multi-week approach supported by eLearning and assignments. Always remember: Start early!
  2. In the programs, assign tasks that reflect real situations your company experiences with customers. Through assignments and role-plays, make sure the participants stumble upon real-life problems, including presenting to an unknown audience, interacting with customers, etc.
  3. Most importantly: Use your best employees in the student programs, as well as in the new-hire and onboarding processes. They are role models—through observing and interacting with them, participants get a picture of what the company considers examples of quality, professionalism, and great culture.

Applying these principles in the search for promising employees can help any organization find and prepare top job prospects to enrich their talent pipeline.