Graduate training: After the milk round

Unless you are José Mourinho, it is unlikely that you will be given the budget to assemble a world-beating team. And even if you can lure someone else’s star salesman with a generous reward package, it won’t give you the continuity of talent that you need to sustain the business in the future. A far better option is to cultivate your own high-achievers, and one way of doing so is through graduate training programmes.

They are enjoying something of a renaissance after a decline in popularity which saw some companies disband their schemes altogether, and many reduce their intake.

Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development due out this month found that 28% of organisations operate a graduate trainee scheme. For many, they are seen as one of the most effective ways to ensure a fresh injection of talent every year, and what’s more, they may pay their way.

A research project carried out by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, Adding Value Beyond Measure: The business case for graduate recruitment programmes, claimed that graduates contribute about £1bn a year of added value to the UK economy. Also, some of the current graduate crop may bring more to the party than intellectual ability and a willingness to learn.

“Graduates’ skillsets are evolving. Increasing numbers are leaving university with broad life experience, perhaps having travelled or done volunteer work,” says Hardwin Jones, editor of the Milkround Online – a website which links up graduates and recruiters online and features recruitment advice and information, as well as vacancies. “Graduates tend to have a more entrepreneurial, business-savvy approach and greater technological know-how than in the past.”

Analyse your business needs

So how do you take some of today’s more talented graduates and turn them into management material?

The starting point for any graduate development programme is to establish a business case, which will enable you to secure top-level buy-in. Without this, your programme is going nowhere. Collate benchmarking data and best practice information about graduate programmes and find out what you can learn from sectors, such as accountancy, which have been especially successful at developing graduates.

It is also essential to ask yourself some key questions: what does the organisation hope to achieve from the programme? And how will it contribute to the bottom line?

“It is vital to carry out an analysis of your own business,” says Donna Miller, who sits on the board of the Association of Graduate Recruiters and whose day job is HR director, Europe, for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “Look at where your knowledge gaps are; look at where there is a business need and what areas you need to address with the training programme.”

There are varying schools of thought when it comes to programme design. Some companies opt for a fairly traditional approach of systematically taking the individual through different departments of the organisation, while others have more of a general management development programme in place.

“Remember that we are not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ world any more,” says Miller, who began her career as a management trainee at Enterprise 15 years ago. “The programme must be tailored for your organisation’s needs.”

One of the most successful graduate recruiters is Procter & Gamble, which was recently named the graduate employer of choice in the fast moving consumer goods, marketing and sales sectors in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers Survey 2006. Procter & Gamble has been running a graduate scheme for more than 20 years and sees it as central to its build-from-within approach. Director of HR, Helen Tucker, believes that giving graduates a real job from the word go is key to its success.

“They start to have business responsibilities from day one and we build a structured training programme around that,” she says. “They love the fact that it’s real work and that they are making a contribution to the business already. It has allowed us to build a strong culture where employees feel really valued.”

Food services company Compass Group, whose brands include Harry Ramsdens, Burger King and Upper Crust, also runs a graduate trainee scheme, for which it receives hundreds of applications for 75 to 85 places.

It introduces graduates to responsibility more gradually, starting its year-long programme with six weeks on the shop floor. As an organisation with 29 operating companies, one of its big challenges is to ensure consistency of training throughout. It had a history of graduate recruitment at operating unit level, but formalised its programme in the late 1990s to achieve more commonality.

“We did not want to take away the autonomy, but we wanted to bring common themes and treatments to the programme,” explains Mike Stapleton, UK corporate affairs director at Compass.

Typically, graduates will remain at the same operating company throughout the year where they will also take up their permanent positions. “We used to move graduates to three different operating companies, but the feedback we got told us that this was too disruptive and disorientating for them, especially as it often meant them moving areas,” says Stapleton.

Compass is one of many organisations that use buddies and mentors to help graduates through the programme. From day one recruits are assigned a mentor, who is usually a line manager, to buddy them. But there is also an all-important second mentor, explains Stapleton. “The second mentor has no operational or managerial impact on the graduate,” he explains. “They are more distant but still related to the business. The graduate can go to them if they want to find out where they get something, for instance, and know they won’t look stupid.”

Measuring up

Clearly completion rates provide a way of measuring success. Compass averages a 90% success rate, although last year was higher, it says. Procter & Gamble’s drop-out rate is no more than 6%, says Tucker. The build-from-within philosophy also acts as a major motivating factor for ensuring as many graduates succeed as possible. “If we have a hole, it has to be filled from within,” says Tucker. “Line managers’ success is measured on building business and the organisation in equal measure.”

Both Procter & Gamble and Compass stress the importance of feedback from graduates and line managers to ensure their training programmes remain topical and work for the recruits and the business.

Re-evaluation of the programme is essential, according to Miller. She says some companies make the mistake of setting up a programme and then neglecting to assess whether it still meets the business’s needs. “Businesses change, customers change, and markets change and organisations must regularly evaluate and update their programmes to ensure they meet their needs.”

Challenges

Crucially, organisations must also bear in mind that what graduates want from employers also changes. This means companies face several challenges if they are to succeed in attracting and retaining top talent.

While there will always be students who seek job security, a good salary and high-quality training, there are often other items on their first-job wishlist, says Jones. “We do see shifts in candidates’ concerns, which include higher levels of social and environmental awareness, increasing desire to do a job which makes a difference and a preference for more flexible working arrangements. Major graduate employers are showing flexibility and an acute market sensibility when responding to these requests.”

Employers must also be mindful of the requirements of the forthcoming age legislation which comes into force on 1 October, which could well make the age of graduate recruits more varied.

Ultimately, such changes are likely to enhance the graduate talent pool, making it more diverse and broader. And while training professionals engaged in designing a graduate trainee scheme have plenty to think about, if you get it right, it can sustain the business for decades to come. World-beating teams can be homegrown.

Facts about graduate recruits



  • Average debt on graduation (2005): 12,069
  • Average debt on graduation (2010 projected): 30,000
  • Expecting to start a graduate job in 2004: 20%
  • Most popular sectors among graduates: media and marketing Least popular: utilities
  • Most important factor desired in a job: enjoyment
  • Least: working for an international company
  • Average starting salary expected: 18,800
  • Preferred working location: London (one-third of graduate jobseekers)
  • Percentage who collected employers’ literature before graduating: 43%
  • Percentage of graduates with no work experience: 6%

Sources: UK Graduate Survey; Association of Graduate Recruiters; Barclays Bank; Sodexho/Times Higher Education supplement; Institute for Employment Studies: The Guardian Grad Facts survey.

Top tips



  • Make a business case for the graduate training programme and align it with the business needs of the company.
  • Re-evaluate and refine the programme to ensure it still works for both the graduates and the business.
  • Ensure there are support mechanisms in place, such as buddies and mentors.
  • Seek regular feedback from graduates and line managers.
  • Create a culture in which the graduates feel valued.

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