“We used to say to potential recruits ‘come and work in Sydney with its fabulous beaches and wonderful lifestyle’. Now, research has shown us that what really counts for the people we want to attract is who they work with, not where. They want to join up with good people, so they can make a difference for society,” says Marcus Clark, Head of Talent Acquisition at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). The insights from this research have provided the foundation for a revamped employee value proposition, which is in turn reflected in the employer branding and talent acquisition strategies. What can other organizations learn from an institution that’s making its mark in the competition for academic and professional talent worldwide? 

The interview was carried out before the full global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear. While circumstances have changed since, the engagement, pursuit of social good, and determination to find out what employees really want, which is at the heart of UNSW’s employee value proposition, have never been more critical. 

Standing Out: How would you describe the culture and ethos of UNSW, and what makes this special? 

Marcus Clark: UNSW has been rising up the global rankings in recent years, and is now among the top 50 universities worldwide. We stand out in fields stretching from medicine to law. Being a center of academic excellence is clearly important to us. But we’re much more than that. What really marks out UNSW is the desire to be at the forefront of change, and be a force for good in society. Climate change is a clear case in point, both through our dedicated research center, and the active campaigning by students and staff.  

We’re also a group of people who want to make a tangible difference. Our longstanding motto has been ‘knowledge by hand and mind’, which speaks to our focus on academic excellence and real-world outcomes. We’re now keen to add ‘heart’ to this, reflecting the focus on social good that is so important to who we are, and how we do things. The combination of heart, hand, and mind is commonly expressed by staff in the words that “our research must focus on what the world wants”. Coming back to sustainability as an example, this hands-on approach includes being a world leader in the development of photo-voltaic cells, solar power research, and energy storage. This is backed up by the highly effective support we offer to help researchers secure the government funding and industry partnerships they need to take their developments forward. 

Standing Out: In 2019, you revamped your employee value proposition. What does this involve, and what is driving this? 

Marcus Clark: Through market research, we wanted to get to the bottom of what motivates the people UNSW is looking to attract and retain. We were also keen to compare ourselves with competitors, and see what differentiates us. This analysis didn’t just look at other universities, but also at the consultancies, private companies and other organizations that are looking for the same kind of talent as us.

through market research, we wanted to get to the bottom of what motivates the people UNSW is looking to attract and retain.

The big take-away from the research was the extent to which good people attract good people. While in the past we had highlighted the attractions of the lifestyle here in Sydney, the people in our talent orbit are mainly looking at who they’ll be working with, and how they can come together to make the difference they all want. 

The challenge was then how to crystallize this into a suitably short, sharp, and catchy tagline. This needs to capture the essence of our employee value proposition. To be credible, it also needs to reflect how our people see UNSW, and their part in its success. The result we came up with is ‘make it matter’, which manifests itself in everything from better career opportunities to better lives for people around the world.

Standing Out: How is your employee value proposition reflected in your employer branding strategy?  

Marcus Clark: Our employee value proposition and the employer branding strategy that stems from it should be just as relevant and meaningful for our staff as potential recruits. If the message resonates internally, it will resonate externally. 

if the message resonates internally, it will resonate externally.

Our organizational design team has led the development of our new employee value proposition. This includes long conversations with different groups of staff about what motivates them, and what resonates with them. The conversations have also focused on the great contributions our people are making, and how we can best support and build on this. With the employee value proposition as the foundation, this dialogue can help to create a social contract whereby we - university and staff – can do the best for each other. 

I and my colleagues in talent acquisition are responsible for the employer branding framework, which is very much driven by the employee value proposition. We want the brand we project to convey how we see ourselves. In seeking to reflect our culture, and match internal and external messaging, this includes moving from what has been quite direct and technical communications to a warmer and more emotionally-connected approach. One of the advantages is helping us to appeal to people with a broad emotional intelligence. This approach can also help us to attract and retain more female academics.

we want the brand we project to convey how we see ourselves…moving from what has been quite direct and technical communications to a warmer and more emotionally-connected approach.

We’ve also been adapting the ‘make it matter’ message to make it relevant and appealing to particular target groups. The communications are built around ‘proof points’ to demonstrate what we offer, and how we are living up to our promises.  

Women within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – STEM – are an example of one of our target cohorts. Our aim is to attract elite candidates, who want to work with likeminded and equally talented people. For academics, with typically three to seven years’ post-doctoral experience, our Scientia Fellowship Program perfectly captures the ‘make it matter’ ethos by seeking to tackle “global issues that keep us all awake at night”. To demonstrate the opportunities for women, we’ve been able to show that they make up the majority of our recent intake. We can also give real life examples to show the pathways for developing their careers, along with the support we offer in areas such as mentoring and securing funding. 

For more senior posts, we’ve developed our SHARP program,  which seeks to attract senior academics in the top 1% in their field. To reach out to women specifically, we’re able to show that they make up around half of the recent intake in the program. We can also highlight prominent role models such as Michelle Simmons, Scientia Professor of Quantum Physics, who was ‘Australian of the Year’ in 2018.  

In thinking about how we tailor our messages, it’s important to remember that most academics work on a series of fixed-term contracts as they move from one grant-funded project to the next. While this might sound tenuous, specialist researchers form close-knit communities within their fields. Again, the chance to work with respected peers is a big attraction. We advertise these posts globally, and receive a huge amount of applications from overseas. 

Standing Out: How do you seek to stand out in the global talent market? 

Marcus Clark: Recruiting people from overseas is a big priority for UNSW and other Australian universities. We’re keen to bring in new blood.  

Looking again at our SHARP program for elite researchers as an example, this is an exceedingly difficult cohort to attract. Many will already be in senior positions, and possibly reluctant to come half-way around the world to UNSW. That’s why our successful record on grant funding, and the opportunity to collaborate with other leading researchers are so important.  

One of the particular challenges for us here at UNSW is that we don’t have as big a profile as many of the other leading universities worldwide. That’s why we have a highly developed digital marketing program. For example, if someone types ‘top 100 universities’, they’ll almost invariably see a pop-up from us. Digital engagement also helps us to ensure we’re getting the right messages to the right people. The first thing international post-graduates do when they are thinking of coming to UNSW is to look online at what employment opportunities are coming up at the university. They can then be tracked online.  

Our talent demands go far beyond the academic world to include professionals in areas such as finance and HR. A particular focus of recruitment internationally is people with philanthropy and social impact experience. This is a relatively new field in Australia, so there are few people to draw on locally. However, unlike academics, for whom visas are reasonably securable, Australia’s immigration policies can make social impact specialists and other professionals hard to bring in from abroad. One of the ways we’re seeking to boost our professional talent pool is by developing a graduate training program, with UNSW alumni forming a key part of the intake. 

Standing Out: What role does social media play in your communications? 

Marcus Clark: From a communications perspective, we’re able to generate a constant stream of great stories – universities are good news factories. We have a dedicated social media team to manage this. Academics also tend to be big users of Twitter, creating their own content without the support of the marketing team. For example, Emma Johnston, Dean of the science faculty, a leading marine biologist and well-known TV presenter, has built up a significant social media following from her regular posts.

from a communications perspective, we’re able to generate a constant stream of great stories – universities are good news factories.

Knowledge base: What we can learn about employer branding from UNSW

  • If it resonates internally, it will resonate externally.
  • Promote your people – good people like working with other good people. 
  • An emotional connection can do more to broaden your talent appeal than dry facts and figures.
  • Working on fixed-term contracts is less tenuous than you might think. With the right engagement, you can still create a sense of belonging.
  • Put yourself in the picture globally. Digital profiling and engagement can help you to target candidates worldwide. 

Marcus Clark, Head of Talent Acquisition, UNSW

Marcus took up his post as Head of Talent Acquisition at UNSW in 2016, following more than 20 years of experience in recruitment. He was previously Head of Talent Acquisition at LafargeHolcim and has held various senior roles both in-house and in recruitment gencies. Marcus has established several in-house recruitment functions, with a strong focus on setting up teams, systems, and processes to secure the best talent.

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