Graduate Development: Trends and Lessons from our Global Partners

 The Institute of Student Employers (ISE) recently released their Student Development report for 2022 and posted a blog that investigates whether their market is experiencing a Great Resignation among early talent.  We interviewed Nicola Thomas, Head of Research at the ISE and Josh Mackenzie, Founder and Chairman of Development Beyond Learning. to find out more about the latest trends in young talent development – and reflected on whether we are likely to experience similar trends in South Africa, despite vast differences between the two markets.1

The Great Resignation among young talent – fact or fiction? 

When reflecting on graduate retention three years after joining a programme, the UK has experienced a decline from 83% in 2016, compared to 72% in 2022.  So, yes, retention is on a downward trend which may continue in the same direction, but with 72% retention, this can hardly be labelled a “Great Resignation”. 

It does seem, though, that graduates are itching to move and there are a couple of possible reasons for this.  Coming out of the pandemic employment, for many, has taken on a different complexion and young people are reassessing what a career means to them and how closely (or not) what they are doing aligns with their values.  Having worked from home during lockdowns, more have the sense that they can take control of when and how they want to work.

A further cause for attrition is the increased and ever-increasing cost of living that is resulting in more dissatisfaction with pay.  With 300-400% higher living costs than ten years ago, most are willing to move jobs for better pay or bonus structures.

The pandemic has impacted workplace relationships and the extent to which young talent have felt engaged and supported in their roles.  And, as Josh points out, the pandemic has been difficult for managers, too, who have felt unable or ill equipped to support and develop young talent as much as they would have liked to.  Under the circumstances, a drop in retention is not surprising!

How can employers positively influence retention through development?

Happily, there are a host of development interventions that employers can deploy – to aid retention but also ensure a smooth transition to work and the better normal. 

Pre-Boarding has become increasingly important as contributing towards stickiness and accelerated development as well as maintaining the “courtship” between when a candidate signs and when they join the business. And the pandemic has taught us that we can do this effectively in a virtual manner. 

There is a need to invest more in managers, too.  They require the skills to lead young talent in a hybrid work environment and we should not take for granted that they know how to do this!

Before the pandemic, virtual programmes were the “poor cousin” – now they are the “go to” learning solution – saving time and money – when executed well.  The question, of course, is “what does excellent virtual learning look like?”  Whilst we don’t yet have the perfect answer, Josh suggested that our focus must be on evaluating what content can be delivered in a “high touch” virtual manner and what content is better delivered in a face-to-face setting.  We do need both!  Even with virtual learning, young talent have a keen appetite to share their experiences – they value talking to one another and this helps to facilitate a sense of belonging.   Allow time for this when building out content, ensure that meaningful conversations are facilitated and that networking and connecting is addressed.  A robust, blended programme will be well received by young talent.

Nicola pointed out an additional benefit that UK employers are seeing – with most of pre-boarding and on-boarding content being executed in an asynchronous, virtual manner there is no longer a requirement to bring young talent into the business all at once, allowing for staggered intakes and broadening the scope to fill vacancies with graduates.

Skills and attributes being developed

So, what are the skills that most UK employers are focused on developing in young talent?  Increasingly, employers are recruiting for potential and attitude whilst investing in skill development.  According to the ISE’s research, the most common skills being developed are:

  • Managing up as well as managing relationships with a broad stakeholder base
  • Career Management
  • Negotiation and Influencing skills
  • Conflict handling

In addition to the above, there is still a large focus on developing self-awareness, responsibility, and resilience.  Mental wellbeing and training for diversity and inclusion are also critical.  Nicola mentioned the need to harness and develop business communication among young talent.  Students have lost confidence in their ability to interact and, often, they just don’t know how to do this in a virtual setting which still requires professionalism.

Confirming what the ISE Student Development report revealed, Josh shared the 10 most common skills in graduate development programs this year. This data is sourced from DBL development programs delivered to more than 8 000 graduates and young professionals for employers across UK, Europe, Asia and Australia. The Top 10 in 2022 so far are:

1. Growth mindset6.  Adaptability Mindset
2. Self-awareness7.  Social Intelligence
3. Personal brand8.  Owning your belonging
4. Resilience9.  Confidence
5. Critical Thinking10.  Creativity

Effective development interventions

Once we know what skills to develop and we achieve the best balance between tech and touch, what else is working well when developing young talent?

According to Nicola, the ISE’s research has revealed that rotations are still one of the most impactful approaches to graduate development – even in a virtual or hybrid setting.  Experiential learning and engagement with senior management are also high up on the list, though these have both been negatively impacted by Covid-19.  A new phenomenon, known as “presenteeism bias” is emerging – this is the concern that those who are physically present in the workplace are going to have more advantages than those who choose to work remotely – something employers will need to be aware of and manage, going forward.

Josh emphasised the importance of keeping skills being taught relevant to the moment, remaining agile and being prepared to adapt development programmes, as required.  He also advised employers to invest in development early on by making use of pre-boarding initiatives that would help prepare young talent for a hybrid work situation – the earlier we develop, the better!

Using Internships that include a soft-skills component as part of an attraction strategy is an effective way of developing young talent from early on.  This is corroborated by the ISE report wherein employers confirmed that student who have previous work experience make better employees.

And don’t forget to invest in developing managers – not only to equip them with the skills to develop young talent in a hybrid work situation, but also to promote inclusion and to remain sensitive to the impact of remote work on belonging, well being and mental health.

The South African context

Having highlighted the enormous difference in unemployment rates when comparing the two countries, it is somewhat unlikely that South African employers will experience a “great resignation” at a young talent level.  As we already know from out own benchmarking studies, 78% of candidates rate security of employment as very important when deciding where to apply.

89% of candidates will be evaluating an employer’s development proposition when deciding where to apply.  So, adapting our approach to development and getting it right in the better normal remains critical in our market.


1 Unemployment in the UK is only a tenth of what it is in South Africa, sitting at around 3.7%.