Attracting talented graduates

One thing that attracts talented graduates to employers is a coherent training and development scheme – but that’s not quite enough.

Graduating from university may mark the end of lunchtime lie-ins and fun with traffic cones, but it is also a crucial time for the employers hoping to train up the next generation of managers.

Employers are hiring graduates in droves, and with more than 2.3 million students entering the higher education system in 2005, the way they are trained and developed in the workplace is vital to the future of UK plc.

The huge expansion of university education over the past 10 years, coupled with an ever-tightening labour market, is making graduate training increasingly important to UK companies.

Alison Hodgson, chair of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) and head of resourcing at Royal Mail Group, says that a sound training programme is high up the list of what graduates look for in potential employers.

She says that research shows graduates want high-level business training as well as development that will help them grow as an individual.

“Training is one of the biggest parts of the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor when graduates are choosing an organisation,” she says. “Vacancies have increased and the market for graduates is much more competitive than it’s ever been. That’s why training can be such a key differentiator for the leading companies.”

Fundamental change

As well as the actual training, employers need to manage the transition from full-time education to the world of work, which represents one of the most fundamental changes in people’s lives.

“This is probably one of the biggest transitions people make in their whole career,” Hodgson adds. “When you transfer from university into work, your world can be turned upside down, so employers need to help support their new recruits.”

An effective scheme needs to introduce graduates to the commercial needs of the organisation as early as possible and give comprehensive exposure to the whole organisation, not just the area they will be working in.

Hodgson says that large, dedicated corporate programmes are not as common as they used to be. Nowadays, more employers are looking to recruit graduates straight into the job, supporting them with a mix of on-the-job training and coaching.

Wendy Hirsch, principle associate of the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), says traditional corporate graduate training schemes only represent the smallest part of the market, and that most employers don’t go down this route for most university leavers.

“There’s no real evidence that companies are cutting down the number of corporate schemes, but it’s true that only a tiny fraction of UK graduates come into work in this way – these company-wide schemes are just the tip of the iceberg.

“The larger firms still tend to use corporate schemes for the high-potential recruits, but use a mix of other local training schemes for the majority of graduates,” she explains.

Hirsch argues that the perception of a company’s training is vital, because it can be used as a tool to attract talented graduates who may not otherwise be interested in that organisation or sector.

By providing development opportunities and the possibility of fast-track advancement, graduate training can act as an excellent recruitment tool in a highly competitive market.

Solid development

Getting the training offering right can have many other benefits by helping employers to develop an ongoing skills base, build loyalty, generate a pool of future managers, and get fresh ideas into an organisation.

“Schemes must genuinely offer solid development for graduates, but in a wider sense they work very hard for an employer’s brand when it comes to recruitment.

“There’s also a cultural gain because a good scheme can have a cohort effect, where people feel they are working towards shared goals and are part of something bigger than their own department,” she adds.

Hirsh says that employers use a wide mix of higher education institutions, consultants, training firms and mentoring to get graduates work-ready, but insists that all activity must build skills, provide challenging work, and have proper assessment that is well communicated.

Despite widespread recognition about what is required, the IES has found one of the most common complaints is poor co-ordination of the overall scheme and the support on offer during or after study.

Aside from all the professional development, it’s important that graduates – who will generally be young and in the workplace for the first time – actually feel ‘loved’ by the company.

“Training needs to deliver what it promises, but must also add value to the organisation,” says Hirsh. “There must also be a central point of contact through HR or training so that graduates feel they have ongoing support. Research suggests that many graduates actually choose smaller firms because the intimacy of the relationships can be stronger,” she says.

One of the hallmarks of the very best schemes is the use of leaders from within the company being responsible for some of the content. That could mean mentoring, coaching or even teaching some of the courses.

However, some employers are looking to get potential recruits trained at an even earlier stage by teaming up with the universities to help make graduates more work ready.

The Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University has developed a BA degree in corporate management, which combines a mix of university-based study, assignments and work-based learning. It was developed in conjunction with employers, who sponsor the students and take them in during the course.

Reality bites

Tim Nichol, associate dean for undergraduate courses at Newcastle Business School, says the course helps prepare graduates for the harsh reality of the workplace.

“Most organisations tell us that a three-month gap exists between recruiting graduates and the point at which they become productive. By combining two years’ full-time work with academic study, participants can acquire the business-critical skills they need.

“They are also able to pick up organisational culture and ways of doing things that are often a barrier to graduates hitting the ground running,” he says.

Last year, First Group and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport linked up with the Open University to design a dedicated professional development programme for the transport sector. More than 34 people have now gone through the course, which the company says helps define the leaders of tomorrow, while at the same time providing academic development for staff.

In the summer, banking firms in London used recruitment consultants to create a ‘graduate boot camp’ scheme to help beat extreme skills shortages in the sector. The boot camps provided intensive graduate training for very specific roles, so that recruits could take up temporary jobs in financial services to help plug the gaps.

Alex Niarchos, a manager at recruiter Joslin Rowe, says the scheme helped City employers fill vital roles and train a pool of graduates at the same time.

“The scheme gives banks the flexibility to hire someone straight away on an ongoing contract for as long as they need in an area that is short-staffed. Although this isn’t a permanent role, it can often lead to one, and however long or short the assignment, it means that graduates temping on the scheme will have considerable experience at the end of it and be eminently more employable,” he says.

Graduate training seems as important as it ever was, but with more graduates about and greater competition for the services of the best ones, employers are having to innovate to attract the best people and get the right results.

Case study: NHS

The public sector has some of the most lauded graduate training schemes around, with employers in the NHS running one of the most respected.

The Graduate Management Training Scheme has been going for 50 years, but is still at the very forefront of workplace development.

The current NHS chief executive, David Nicholson, was a product of the scheme, which regularly scores highly in national surveys and this year won the ‘best of the best’ award from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

The scheme gives graduates work experience in the NHS, access to an individual learning account, strong skills development, professional qualifications, and a competitive salary. It also has a strong support network, with personal mentors, access to top managers, a national peer network, and the opportunity to shadow CEOs.

The programme was even congratulated by health minister Alan Johnson for its efforts in attracting the best people into the NHS and driving up diversity rates.

Julie Ribbons, national resourcing manager for the scheme, says training is helping the NHS meet transformational challenges in the future.

“The scheme continually strives to improve and develop leading-edge techniques. These awards demonstrate the continued investment the NHS is making to ensure future health services will be in the most able of hands.”

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