One University Gets Creative in Recruiting a Diverse Workforce

In April 2013, the Virginia Tech Department of Human Resources launched a “closer than you think” advertising campaign to help recruit applicants from the nearby Roanoke, Va., area. The campaign was launched as part of a larger effort to increase the diversity of individuals applying for the more than 250 positions open at the university at any given time. Today, about 20 percent of individuals applying for positions at Virginia Tech are underrepresented minorities, compared to 9.6 percent of individuals who live in the local recruiting area, per the U.S. Census Bureau, but the university continues to seek new ways to recruit the best and most talented employees.

Curtis Mabry, director of staffing and recruiting for Virginia Tech’s HR department, spoke with us about the value and challenges of encouraging diversity, creating incentives for potential employees and using a multi-pronged approach to reach new recruits.

Q: What led to the launch of Virginia Tech’s “Closer Than You Think” campaign?

A: We’re always looking for ways that we can increase our applicant flow, and by increasing our advertising and outreach in the Roanoke area, we thought we could increase the number of applicants we’re getting and, in turn, increase the diversity of our applicant pool.

Q: What is the value of encouraging diversity among applicants and employees?

A: One reason is we think the university should reflect not only the local demographics, but the demographics of our student body and a global community because our students are going to graduate and go out into an international workforce. They need to have that experience and ability to function with people from all walks of life, different thoughts and backgrounds.

Also, we’re a government contractor so we do have an affirmative action plan and some legal responsibilities there to make sure we’re focusing on diversity and outreach. We do have some under-represented populations in some of our job groups, so we’re trying to actively recruit and address those goals.

There’s a variety of reasons—but it’s also a good practice, a good thing to do and something the university has been doing for some time.

Q: How has the company gotten its recruitment message out?

A: We’ve hosted a couple of events in Roanoke and invited community leaders, local clergy, principals from high schools and middle schools, etc. We’ve been bringing them together and helping them get a feel for the types of jobs we have and the variety of jobs. Most people don’t realize that most of the time we have between 250 and 280 jobs that we’re advertising on our website. Then, think about the diversity of jobs; a lot of times people think ‘it’s a university, you need a PhD, you need to be able to teach,’ but that’s not the case. It’s like running a small city here; you’ve got to have your marketing, your admin, your IT; in addition, we have our own rock quarry, our own airport, our own police department, and our own power system. It takes a lot of different types of jobs to make the whole thing function. That’s the message we’re trying to get across to the folks in Roanoke.

There’s other advertising as well, of course: print and web advertising, we have the message out on some of the local buses that are running bus routes in Roanoke, and we put print ads in the Roanoke Times and Roanoke Tribune. We’re looking at one of the local radio stations and possibly doing some on-air advertising. Then, social media and those types of avenues too.

Q: It sounds like a great plan to delegate this advertising through word-of mouth from community leaders. What led you to try this route?

A: If someone is looking for a job, they’re sharing that with people they’re around: their clergy, their friends and people they have relationships with. If those people understand what we have to offer, then they can make referrals.

We also see a lot of referrals from our current employees, so word-of-mouth to their friends and relatives. We’re trying to use that same approach. I know when somebody refers a product or service to me, I’m going to feel more inclined to check it out than if I don’t know anybody who knows the background of it.

Q: Can you talk about some of the other incentives the university offers to encourage applicants from the Roanoke area?

A: One incentive is simply that not everybody has a Top 30 public research university right next door to them. People don’t always have the opportunity to work for that mission of trying to educate future leaders…

In addition, there are carpool options, ride shares, van pools and the SmartLink bus—and then there are 400-some people who live in Roanoke and drive here everyday so there are lots of carpooling options. Also, we are a state agency, so there’s state retirement and health insurance that’s available.

Q: What are the biggest challenges the HR department faces in finding quality candidates?

A: Getting the message out and getting people to even think about Virginia Tech as an employment option. For most of our jobs we have a very healthy applicant flow and find really qualified people from all over the world, but it’s always helpful when you have a strong applicant pool to choose from when you make a hiring decision.

Q: What are some common mistakes you see during the application/interview process?

A: In the application process, we’re looking for very detailed information about their employment history and what they’ve done. We try to encourage people to tailor their resume or application to each specific job that they’re applying to, so they can address the specific minimum preferred qualifications mentioned in the job ad …

Anytime they can use quantitative information, so instead of saying ‘I supervised a group of employees,’ was it five or was it 50? If you were responsible for budgeting, was it $1,000 or $1 million each year? That helps the people eon our side on the search committee to really get a full for the scope of their experience.

For the interview side of it, I think it’s important for the candidate to really do some research either on the department that they’re applying to or the type of research that area is doing. There are so many things on websites now, whether it’s applying to Virginia Tech or some other corporation, you can really get a lot of information and understand the organization you’re applying to and have some good thought-out questions before you get to the interview. When somebody doesn’t do that it’s pretty obvious to the interview portion.

Q: Do you feel employees/students/community see Virginia Tech as an employer that is supportive of diversity?

A: I think our employees, our students and the community feel that VT is committed to diversity, I think we will always still say that we have work to do—but we should probably always feel that way …

Everyone wants to work somewhere they feel appreciated, respected, and we want everyone here to treat other people that way too. It does build on itself.

About the Author

Megan Headley is a freelance writer in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached at