The greenhouse effect: growing your own talent

With reports that many graduates lack the skills needed for the world of work, employers are bypassing the traditional ‘milk round’ and are growing their own talent. Lucia Cockroft reports.

For many employers, training and nurturing school leavers, or older staff with a non-academic background, makes sound business sense. As despite the higher levels of investment needed, staff loyalty tends to be higher and turnover demonstrably lower. And the continuing reports about the underwhelming performance of UK graduates only sweetens the desire to look elsewhere for talent.

A 2008 survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) found that 43% of employers expect to face recruitment challenges because there are not enough applicants with the right qualifications.

Spelling it out

Poor spelling and grammar, along with dubious mathematical abilities, mean graduates are making basic mistakes and are in need of constant supervision once they get to the workplace, according to the AGR. In 2005, 298 graduate positions in this country were left unfilled as one-third of employers failed to find candidates who came up to scratch.

Other evidence suggests that for school leavers, academic prowess is less important than commitment and potential. A 2006 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and business services firm KPMG found that communication, work ethic and personality were a higher priority for employers than academic achievement.

Fast-food empire McDonald’s is one company subscribing to this view. Of the 30,000 people a year the firm recruits, a significant proportion are school leavers. David Fairhurst, chief people officer, says the prime driver for recruitment is a bright, can-do attitude rather than evidence of academic achievement.

“While we respect graduates and the intellectual rigour they can bring, our prime driver is based on attitude,” he says.

McDonald’s in the UK has three routes to recruitment: school leavers people who are working at the company while studying and graduates. Almost three-quarters of trainee managers join the firm straight from school and come in as ‘crew’, working at the tills and in the kitchens, he says.

“We have a very strong internal labour market that starts at the bottom,” Fairhurst explains. “Many people start with very low expectations of McDonald’s, and then enjoy the experience and the training at our corporate university (see case study) and decide to stay.” Perhaps surprisingly, the average length of time a crew member stays with the company is three years.

Unqualified success

Housing authority London & Quadrant Group is another employer with a track record of growing its own staff. For the past eight years, the organisation has taken on what it calls ‘millennium trainees’ – 16-year-old school leavers with no qualifications. The new recruits start on a salary of £15,700 and are rotated around the organisation according to their professional interests.

Sally Jacobson, the group’s HR director, says the success of the scheme is reflected in the number who go on to become team leaders and managers.

“We’re looking for people who want to do work for us and have a positive mental attitude,” she says. “They are kids from deprived backgrounds who haven’t had the same opportunities as some, and we’ve had staggering success.”

The organisation also successfully trains existing employees by fast-tracking them from their roles as maintenance administrators to become maintenance surveyors.

“We have trouble recruiting in this area and decided to grow our own,” Jacobson says. “Staff are put on a fast-track training programme, where they work with an experienced team and spend a day a week in college. Female employees who would not otherwise have considered this career route have become maintenance surveyors.”

Another advantage of the scheme has been the existing knowledge of the trainees, who have a grass-roots understanding of the process. In the past five years, 12 staff members have completed the training, says Jacobson, adding that the time it takes prohibits a greater number taking part.

Engineering firm Leyland Trucks has begun training some of its 1,000-strong workforce, with encouraging results. Despite the manufacturer’s reliance on a continual stream of proficient engineers, the firm has struggled to attract high-calibre staff.

Leyland decided to tackle the problem by training a small proportion of staff to become engineers, and a two-year Trainee Design Engineer programme – run with Runshaw College and Blackpool & Fylde College – was launched in October 2006.

Leyland’s HR manager, Lyn Butler, explains: “We couldn’t find the calibre of engineers outside the workplace, yet within our own workforce – in the assembly area, for example – we have a lot of talented people who, for some reason, haven’t been given the right opportunities.

Step in the dark

“We don’t struggle to get people with truck knowledge, but we do struggle to get engineers. So it’s now a case of upskilling people by training our existing workforce.”

Butler admits, however, that getting the engineering vacancies filled by trainees, rather than experienced engineers, was a “step in the dark” for Leyland, and the trainees themselves have had to overcome cultural challenges.

At NHS Employers, Foluke Ajayi, head of NHS career and workforce supply, argues that existing staff boast organisational understanding that takes external recruits years to build up.

“One of the criticisms of graduates is that they have no awareness of behaviour in the workplace and little knowledge of the company they are about to work for. If you grow your own staff, they already have that understanding. Also, their expectations are more realistic they tend to be older, with a greater understanding of where their career and personal life is going, compared to an 18-year-old school leaver.”

Ajayi says there are advantages and disadvantages of traditional and non-traditional entrance routes.

“A graduate has a different life experience to a school leaver the maturity a graduate has brings a different emphasis to their role. We value both very much and actually the two routes complement each other.”

On the downside, however, the employer must factor in financial investment in terms of the time out for the staff member to train, and providing adequate access to training and development.

That said, nurturing staff from an early stage in their career will build up a positive impression of your organisation as an employer, argues Stephen Moir, director of people and policy at Cambridgeshire County Council.

Moir says the notion of ‘growing your own’ staff is vital in the public sector, specifically in terms of social workers, planners, engineers and teaching roles. “It makes good business sense because you want to retain your staff,” he says.

Natural selection

Cambridgeshire currently has 300 staff enrolled at its in-house NVQ assessment centre, which is also used to provide support to other organisations, particularly in the social and healthcare arenas.

Moir says the in-house training route is successful because it can tailor an employee’s natural strengths to their role. He says that academic qualifications are not necessarily a reflection of an employee’s aptitude for the job.

However, just because there has been an increase in growing internal talent, does not mean employers are shunning graduates altogether. Hertfordshire County Council, for example, takes on around 10 school leavers a year and between 250 and 300 graduates, and Alan Warner, director of people and property, is quick to challenge reports of the decline in graduate literacy and numeracy.

“We find really good people, who are frighteningly bright,” he says. “They come in with internet-ready skills and are willing to learn.”

That said, the council did set up a leadership academy in 2006 – run in conjunction with the University of Birmingham – that is aimed at employees who have left school without many qualifications.

“There are plenty of staff doing good jobs who aren’t graduates – perhaps because they were late starters or have raised a family. We asked if there was a way of enhancing their potential. As well as helping our employees, it gives us a ready-made, trained pool of people.”

For employers faced with skills shortages, it’s difficult to argue with such a logical and tried-and-tested viewpoint.

Case study: Hamburger University, McDonald’s

McDonald’s operates seven Hamburger Universities (HUs) internationally, and held its first ever course in the UK at East Finchley, London, in 1977.

The management schemes include restaurant operations and leadership practices business leadership practices and advanced shift management.

Basic skills courses, including English and maths NVQ-accredited programmes are also offered at the centre, aimed at staff who need to brush up on literacy and numeracy.

David Fairhurst, chief people officer at McDonald’s, says: “An investment in basic skills represents a vital investment in the future and also means we don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on graduate milk rounds.”

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