Finders keepers

Finding and keeping the right staff is a constant headache for employers in the engineering and science sectors. One scheme, however, has helped ease the pain, as Roisin Woolnough finds out 

Engineering, science and technology employers have long felt they lose a lot of potential staff to other professions because of a lack of awareness of career opportunities in their sector. Hence the introduction of numerous schemes to attract more talent into industry before they are snapped up by other sectors. One such scheme is the Year in Industry.

“We started it in 1987 because many really bright engineering, science and technical students were being snapped up by the City after university,” says Roy Bromley, national director at Year in Industry. “We decided we needed to excite them early on and get them to use their skills in industry.”

Year in Industry works by matching students who want to take a year out between school and university to gain industry experience with appropriate employers. The organisation has 500 employers on its books, with an average of 300 taking placements each year.

Bromley says the scheme has been hugely successful in attracting and retaining young talent. “About 75 per cent of our students go back into industry after university,” he explains. “We have very low drop-out rates – less than 1 per cent. It also helps students at university as it tends to notch up their degree results. Students win by getting real experience, testing their career plans by taking part in real projects. From a company’s perspective, they get a 12-month, no- strings-attached interview with a student. It is very cost effective, high-quality labour.”

Martin Lovell, youth and training manager at BMW Group, which is participating in the scheme for the second year running, agrees.

“We get a valuable experience at a minimal cost,” he says. Not that this is the driving factor behind their involvement in the scheme. “We get to look at up and coming young people. We like to keep up with them after their year and potentially employ them. It is not just a work experience placement.”

Science and technology research company QinetiQ has been involved with the Year in Industry scheme for six years, taking about 40 students each year. Miranda Davies, the graduate marketing manager in charge of the QinetiQ scheme, says recruiting Year in Industry students is a big part of its HR department’s graduate recruitment programme.

“It forms part of our long-term graduate strategy,” she says. “It is about raising the awareness of technology careers in general, but we also want to try to recruit them as graduates.”

QinetiQ provides scholarships to the brightest candidates. “We sponsor about 60 per cent of them through university, and they also come back for vacation placements,” says Davies.

“We are starting to see the benefit of that now, but they are not legally bound to come here after university. It is much more cost-effective than [normal] graduate recruitment – whereas it costs £5,000-£8,000 to recruit a graduate, we spend about £4,500 per Year in Industry graduate throughout their university career.”

For Year in Industry placements to be successful, it is important that employers have properly thought through what kind of project students will be working on. “The most important thing is ensuring the students have a challenging, suitable project to work on,” says Davies. “That’s vital. You can look at them as a cheap resource or have them filing and photocopying, but it would be a waste. You then don’t get the best out of them, nor do they get the best out of you.”

Year in Industry tries to get a good match by talking to employers about what they want and by asking students about what they need. Bromley says employers that are taking part in the scheme for the first time need a bit of hand-holding to ensure the year goes well. Year in Industry representatives visit all students twice during the year, with an extra early visit for employers who are new to the scheme. Contact is maintained throughout the year, and students are also required to take a Chartered Institute of Management exam, covering skills such as negotiation, presentation and communication.

If anything goes wrong, Year in Industry will step in to help sort it out, but Bromley admits that the problem is normally that the student is not being sufficiently challenged. “The usual problem is that the manager is not giving the student enough work to do, so we appraise them on the work level the student can cope with. It’s quite easily solved,” he says.

At BMW Group, Lovell gets managers to come up with the projects during the first stage, and then they determine how many and what kind of students they need. Students are interviewed and recruited on this basis so that there is a good fit. Lovell thinks it is very important that progress is continually monitored.

“Managers determine who they want, and I’m the person who recruits them, monitors their progress and monitors the line managers,” says Lovell. “As an employer, you have to make sure you have your own internal review mechanisms of performance.” He thinks students should be treated as ordinary staff and so conducts an almost formal review on a quarterly basis, with managers involved as well.

Despite this, Lovell says the scheme does not actually greatly increase his or the HR team’s workload. The main thing has been establishing the framework for short-term contracts. “The bulk of the work was the contracts,” he says. “We had to find out about all the legislation, but it is good practice to have that already defined.”

Selling the idea to the board in the first place was also easy, as was selling it to managers. “Buy-in was not a hurdle,” says Lovell. “The board automatically bought in. As for managers, there was almost a queue of people wanting to participate.”

Lovell sees a potentially troublesome area being how much students are paid. He says that HR departments in any organisation that has apprentice schemes needs to peg Year in Industry student rates to the apprentice rates. Otherwise, there is the potential for apprentices to feel resentful if students are paid more than them.

Davies also says the scheme is pretty easy to run. All the paperwork is looked after at QinetiQ’s client centre, while Davies and HR business partners are at hand should any issues arise. The company has a network of graduates and Davies assigns a ‘buddy’ to each Year in Industry student. The only problems they have run into so far, are instances where a project hasn’t been suitable or has finished too early, but the student has always been moved and found more work.

Students generally find themselves working on ‘real-time’ business projects, where they can see the impact of their work. Charlotte Turton did a Year in Industry placement last year at BMW and was assigned to the HR department’s continuous improvement process (CIP). “I was involved in a lot of things and given a lot of responsibility, which was great,” she says. “I was involved in creating and implementing an IT system to be used by everyone in the plant, training people.”

The system was set up to enable company employees to input ideas. The HR department can use that information to monitor which departments are coming up with the ideas and how many are being taken up. Turton implemented the system and ran regular audits on it to ensure it ran properly. She also helped deliver training on how to use the application. Part of a steering group set up to roll the project out, she found it very interesting being involved in the analysis of employee surveys and looking at team development.

Currently studying international business with French and German at Aston University in Birmingham, Turton signed up to get some business experience prior to going to university. Her involvement in the CIP project led to an interest in HR, and she is considering returning to BMW to pursue it when she graduates.

“Although I hadn’t given much thought to HR before, I found it was well suited to me and I would like to get into that field of business,” she says. “I have those kinds of skills – communication, working in a team, computer literacy, and so on.”

The only problem she experienced during her placement was that, initially, a few people were not too keen on being given training by a student. “But everyone was very accepting of me,” she says. “I was integrated into the business and department very quickly. They treated me as a peer, and not as a student.”

Turton has been replaced by another Year in Industry placement this year, Charlotte Musgrave. She is only a couple of months into the scheme, but is already finding it useful in terms of understanding how a business operates.

“I want to study management and thought working in industry would help me find a job after university,” she says. “It has been very good to see the working life in the company and how the employees input ideas to improve the company.”

Although Musgrave is not sure about pursuing a career in HR, she is finding it very interesting learning about how HR can help to support the business.

About Year in Industry

To find out more about Year in Industry or get involved in the scheme, visit or call 020 8059 7061

About BMW

As well as automobile production, BMW Group includes BMW Financial Services, Softlab for system development and IT applications, and the international insurance specialists, Bavaria Wirtschaftsagentur.

About QinetiQ

Europe’s largest science and engineering company’s core business is providing scientific research, tests and evaluation for military customers.

Benefits for employers

  • The possibility of recruiting the Year in Industry student as an employee once they graduate

  • The services of bright, eager students at a low cost

  • Some students return to do vacation work throughout their course

  • It increases the pool of people entering the science, engineering and technical industries

  • Improves the skills sets of the next generation of professionals

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