Graduating to a different level

As the new chair of the UK’s independent graduate recruitment organisation – the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) – Alison Hodgson has resolved to dispense with the rose-tinted spectacles. And she was quick to rubbish claims that the graduate scene is at its lowest ebb, with the simple mantra that it has always been hard for graduates looking to start their career and equally difficult for employers to find the right fit.

In her new post she has set some formidable targets, for both herself and the AGR. She is hoping to set and lead change in the graduate recruitment market and enshrine the discipline as a specific profession in itself, akin to HR specialists such as those working in compensation and benefits.

However, the market is in something of a mess. The 2003 AGR graduate vacancy survey showed 42 applications per graduate job, up from 37 in 2002, with more people in higher education than ever before.

Add to this the fact that an increasing number of companies complain they can’t fill their graduate posts and it presents something of a paradox.

However, in reality, Hodgson explained, it has never been easy for graduates searching for their first job, just as it has never been easy for organisations to find a wunderkind for every post.

“The graduate market has changed in recent years due to global dynamics, but it was never straightforward for a graduate to walk into their ideal job,” Hodgson said.

But events in the UK are set to accelerate this change.

Not only will graduates face the prospect of greater competition in the future; they will have to contend with top-up fees, which will impose an even greater financial burden at the end of their studies.

Hodgson’s view is that this will have an effect on how both graduates and recruiters view the market.

“Graduates will have to think a bit more creatively,” she said. “Graduates often think ‘I want to be in the media, so I’m going to apply to media companies’. They don’t think in a lateral way – most organisations actually have a PR department where they could doing work that involves media skills and competencies.”

Hodgson believes that as graduates learn to make more informed decisions, organisations will have to change the proposition they offer.

“Graduates will make decisions with much more depth and determination levels will rise. Organisations are going realise that graduates will be thinking more holistically,” she explained.

“The current average retention rate of two-and-a-half to three years is not going to be long enough for the graduate of the future. The whole ethos of ‘you go in, you do a graduate programme, you move on’ will change because of these new graduate commitments.”

Vance Kearney, the vice-president of HR at communications company Oracle, is fond of espousing the view that the ever-growing number of graduates can mean only two things; a very highly qualified dole queue and a new elitism in recruitment where organisations visit only the top universities looking for talent.

Hodgson, though, takes the opposite view.

“The message is that we can’t be complacent,” she said. “All the sectors I have worked in have had graduate recruitment programmes and they have all featured on the business agenda – that’s why [Kearney’s] argument doesn’t stack up. There are more and more graduates and by default that means more and more organisations will be recruiting them.”

She also dismissed fears that top-up fees, combined with the Government’s drive towards more vocational training will have a serious impact on graduate recruitment.

“As a country we are moving towards a US model [where fees have already been introduced] and that is not what is happening there,” she explained. “And Australia has been operating this model of top-up fees for a long time and graduates have not turned away from the market at all.”

Hodgson predicts that in the future companies will have to get to potential applicants as early as possible – often as early as school age. Anticipating this, the AGR has published free guidance on its website – called If Only I’d Know – which aims to help decision-making among school leavers before they have even set a foot in a university.

It’s something that Hodgson has already started experimenting with in her day job as UK and Ireland resourcing manager at catering firm Sodexho.

“My team now go to first year students to start getting our message across,” she explained. “You have to get them through the door. It’s all about the touch and feel of an organisation.”

Hodgson’s tenure at the AGR will cover a period a major evolution in the graduate market.

“One crusade that I’m on is that graduate recruitment is a profession in itself,” she said. “There is a massive industry out there and you can be a graduate recruiter for life. We want to show our members that [graduate recruitment] can be a profession in its own right.”

By Michael Millar

Alison Hodgson – CV

2002    UK and Ireland resourcing manager, at catering giant Sodexho

2000    Head of graduate recruitment and development, WorldCom

1999    Assistant vice-president for the European graduate and MBA programme, SalamonSmithBarney

1996    Store personnel manager, Marks & Spencer

1994    Joined the Marks & Spencer graduate recruitment scheme

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