School of hard knocks

As graduate programmes keep pace with the tough economic climate, training
professionals have to take on an even more accountable role. Lucie Carrington
reports

No firm comes as close to losing control as Marks & Spencer, yet
ultimately survives and thrives without making radical changes to all aspects
of its business. It’s hardly surprising therefore that the retailer’s graduate
recruitment and development programme has come in for scrutiny.

Three years ago, the firm – a front-ranking graduate employer for decades –
shocked employers, universities and students when it withdrew from the graduate
market, cancelling all outstanding offers. Thankfully, it was a temporary
withdrawal. This year, M&S has taken on more than 100 graduates and has
already announced it is upping this to a very precise 179 for its 2003 intake.

However, M&S’s brief spell away from front-line graduate recruitment has
had an impact. Yes, the firm sees graduate recruitment as crucial to the
development of its business, and yes, it wants to attract, motivate and retain
the best graduate talent. But, it is no longer just looking for bright, hard
workers, says Matthew Chester, head of graduate recruitment. Now it wants
self-starters too and the training department must attune itself. "When it
comes to training and development, we’re looking for more input and less
hand-holding," he says.

Other graduate employers echo this sentiment. This year, local authorities
have launched a first ever national graduate recruitment scheme [see box, p29].
Its aim is to produce the senior local authority managers of the future. But
it’s essentially a two-year training contract at the end of which the young
recruits have to go and find their own job.

Independent

"These young people are very much in charge of their own careers and
there is little hand holding," says Tim Hodey, a programme consultant with
local authority representatives the Employers Organisation, which administers
the scheme. "We selected them for their independent qualities and we want
them to create their own partnerships within local authorities and other
organisations," he adds.

The BBC, renowned for its skills training, is also looking for something
more from its trainees. According to Nigel Paine, head of training at the BBC,
the corporation spends at least £8.5m on its 400 trainees. "We are trying
to develop their skills and their behaviours and attitudes. We want people who
fit in with our values as well as having the skills," Paine says.

To do this, he and his colleagues are changing the focus of traineeships and
giving them a bigger corporate pull. "We are trying to co-ordinate our
training schemes so that trainees are BBC trainees rather than belonging to
particular bits of the BBC. We want to give them as much exposure as we can so
that when it comes to getting a job, they can decide where they feel the most
comfortable."

A bi-product of this demand for independent graduates with the interpersonal
skills to take control of their careers is better links between employers and
universities.

It’s an idea that Matthew Chester wants to push and it is certainly
something Nigel Paine at the BBC has already started to work on. He and his
colleagues work closely with the National Film and Television School and with
SkillSet, the national training organisation, providing speakers, work
experience opportunities for students and so on. "We want students to
understand what working for the BBC is really like," Paine says.

However, with 700 applications for each trainee place, this is not a
recruitment drive. "It helps us to keep in touch with what these
organisations are doing and helps us to influence the curriculum," adds
Paine. It’s also about value for money. "We need to be working as smartly
as possible."

This perhaps sums up what all employers are trying to do with their graduate
development schemes. This is certainly a view that Alison Hodgson would
subscribe to. Hodgson is UK and Ireland resourcing manager at facilities firm
Sodexho and, until a few months ago, headed up graduate recruitment at
WorldCom. She is also a board member of the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

"Training for graduates has always been meaningful but economic
uncertainty makes it more crucial that this is so," Hodgson says.
"So, where previously a graduate training programme was a bit of a luxury,
it has had to become much more accountable." In practice, this means
employers are devolving the head count so that graduates who were once a
central resource are funded by individual departments or cost centres.
"They are paying for their graduates as well as getting the
benefits," Hodgson says.

Worthwhile expense

Hodgson saw this happen at WorldCom and she spent a lot of her time
convincing line managers that graduate training was a worthwhile expense.
"I was constantly updating the file of testimonials I kept to justify
holding on to graduates. These included information about the projects
graduates had worked on in the past and the level they are reached in the
organisation," Hodgson says.

Sodexho runs a 12-month rotational programme for its graduates. The firm
works in a variety of public and private sector outlets including defence,
education and banking. "It’s important that graduates get exposure to all
these, so they fit in," Hodgson says.

The aim is to increase the number of ‘promotable’ managers in the business.
Even so, Sodexho is looking for graduates who are hungry to succeed and
prepared to get on with it.

This is reflected in the type of training employers give their graduates
now, with the emphasis on mentoring and coaching rather than endless courses.
"We are training them in a different way," Hodgson says. "We
simply provide them with the tools to manage their careers – whether it’s
networking opportunities or a personal development programme."

Graduate training may be less prescriptive but this doesn’t mean it’s any
cheaper. Nor should it be, argues Fran Frost, a consultant with the Hay Group,
which launched research into what graduate trainees in the FTSE 100 are looking
for from work and what the FTSE 100 are offering.

"Graduates don’t just take on jobs for the pay," Frost says. The
vast majority of the 65 graduates interviewed by Hay researchers said the
training and development employers offered ranked alongside pay when it came to
choosing a job. At the same time, if the current downturn continues, employers
are going to have to step up the total reward package if they are to attract
and retain the best.

This suggests a certain meeting of minds between employers and potential
recruits. The problem could be that as the number of graduate jobs decline –
and the AGR believes they are set to drop by about 6.5 per cent this year – the
pressure will also be on to cut graduate costs in other ways.

Graduate development: the key points

– Make the link between graduate
development and corporate objectives and be sure you reinforce this for line
managers

– Tie line managers into your graduate development programme as
trainers, mentors and coaches. They should be their responsibility too

– Track your graduate trainees – keep records of their
achievements so that you can demonstrate their value to their managers,
colleagues and the organisation as a whole

– Endless courses could be a waste of your cash. Offer as broad
a range of development opportunities as you can, from mentoring and coaching,
to access to senior managers

– Don’t underestimate the value of professional qualifications
in the bid to encourage your graduates to take control

– If regular promotions are out of the question now, work out
alternatives to stretch and challenge your graduates, such as projects that
cross functional barriers

– Links with universities are invaluable if you want work-ready
graduates. Don’t leave this to the recruiters, whose main aim is to market the
organisation to the brightest young people

– Listen to your graduates – they are an expensive resource and
you want to hang on to them. They are also tomorrow’s leaders

Local authorities promote generalist
programmes

Local authorities have long offered a
professional training for lawyers, accountants, engineers and so on. But since
last year, with the help of the Employers Organisation and The Improvement and
Development Agency, they have offered their first general management programme
for graduates.

Salford MBC has recruited two of this year’s intake of 49 young
people. "We have supported graduates for years, but in professional
disciplines such as engineering. However, there’s an increasing recognition in
local government that we need generalist leaders rather that professional
specialists," says David Horsler, senior principal personnel officer,
Salford MBC.

Salford, along with the other sponsoring authorities, picks up
the employment costs of its trainees, who are all on two-year training
contracts. During that time, they will benefit from the five key elements of
the development programme – delivered both locally and nationally.

Firstly there is the core, two-year work placement. During that
time, they will work in three areas of the council – policy, internal support,
such as HR, and front-line services, such as social services. These are not
made-up jobs. "They are doing real work that would have to be picked up by
other officers," says Horsler, referring to Salford’s trainees.

Sponsoring councils have also agreed to arrange two placements
lasting a fortnight. These are to be at an organisation outside local
government such as a hospital trust or a local business with whom the council
has dealings.

The national side of the programme is being administered by the
Employers Organisation. It includes four national training events to provide
trainees with the sort of national information that senior local authority
managers need. Trainees are also going to work towards a national post graduate
diploma in management. This is a new, modular qualification that is being
delivered through Warwick Business School. The first module begins in February.

Finally, with help from the Society of Local Authority Chief
Executives, each trainee will be assigned an external mentor to help them
concentrate on career management issues.

"The programme is designed to be participative," says
Tim Hodey, of the Employers Organisation’s graduate development team. "Our
aim is to encourage and equip graduates to take control of their careers. We’re
not providing a regimental programme, although we do want consistency."

At the end of the two years, the trainees must find their own
jobs. "We feel quite confident that local authorities would be very
foolish not to offer these trainees opportunities when their training is over.
They will be extremely marketable."

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