On first inspection, the campus hiring strategy of mid-sized, Bangalore-based IT services firm MindTree might seem a little unusual.

At MindTree, whose customers include 48 Fortune 500 companies, several executives serve on the advisory boards of select engineering colleges across India. At one particular college, the company co-teaches a full credit course in testing. At others, it runs a number of lecture series.

These diverse campus activities are connected. For most IT services firms in India, a significant number of new recruits each year come from campus hiring. One estimate by IT industry trade body Nasscom put direct campus hiring by the industry at 300,000 in 2011.

However, the days when global IT and product engineering services firms merely showed up at colleges once or twice a year are long gone. Given the shortage of top-level talent and the congestion at campus recruitment time, companies are constantly thinking of innovative ways to stand out from the crowd.

Longstanding engagements between IT companies and colleges help make students employable – “job-ready” in hiring speak. These relationships serve to address the skills levels of graduates, preparing them for the challenges of a constantly-evolving industry.

The engagement has worked well for the IT sector so far – so well, in fact, that critics say it has been to the detriment of recruitment in other sectors in India.

Talent pool for India’s services industry

Apart from the goal of helping create a talent pool for the whole industry, collaborations with academia by individual companies are subtle marketing and brand-building tactics. In an increasingly cluttered hiring market, unusual engagements between companies and colleges are image differentiators, says N S Parthasarathy, president and COO of MindTree.

“Through year-round activities we want prospective hires to view MindTree as ‘young and different’,” Parthasarathy says.

As a measure of how seriously companies are beginning to take these collaborations, India’s largest IT services company, the Mumbai-based Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), has created a special unit called Academic Interface Program.

TCS has a memorandum of understanding with 200 colleges and universities across India in what is the largest such collaboration with academia by any single company.

TCS hosts Campus Commune, a professional networking site specifically for students where they can post queries, join various communities and collaborate with employees.

At various campuses, TCS runs interactive self-development workshops on subjects such as working in diverse teams and multi-cultural sensitivity. It offers case study-driven courses on software and introductions to industry verticals.

Year-round campus presence

For TCS, the year-round concerted efforts have paid off handsomely. At campus placement time, the company dominates the prize interviewing slots on day one at many colleges. The company’s joining ratio to offers made, the conversion rate as it is called, hovers at a high of 90 per cent.

Top-tier Cognizant Technology Solutions engages on three separate levels at campuses – with students, placement officers and academics.

For faculty members, it offers research scholarships and faculty sabbaticals. With placement officers, the company works on improving students’ industry preparedness. For students, the company offers a three-day campus ambassador programme to bring together students from top engineering colleges. “We are creating an eco-system for broad-based growth,” says Shankar Srinivasan, chief people officer at Cognizant.

At the moment, colleges and universities follow a hierarchical order where top firms enjoy day-one slots to interview and make job offers to the best talent. Smaller companies follow. This system allows the biggest most influential companies to squeeze out smaller competitors.

However, that preferential treatment is expected to change. Over the coming years, all top campuses will move to a slot-sharing model, says Srinivasan. When that happens, students will have even more choices. So it becomes still more critical that hiring companies win the allegiances of students at the earliest opportunity, says Srinivasan.

With size and concerted branding efforts, the largest firms such as TCS and Cognizant are high on the campus popularity charts. However, that popularity has only intensified competition for smaller companies. Students are not given a fair chance to select a company of their choice because of the pressure large firms exert on institutions, says Parthasarathy.

That is where year-round branding helps. MindTree says its efforts have earned it a good reputation despite stiff competition. “We go out of the way to build bonds with colleges so that MindTree is seen as a dream company to work for by their students,” says Parthasarathy.