Published: 2006-06-21

Very few businesses, large or small, local or global, do not employ graduates these days.

Why is this? And what is it differentiates graduates from the rest of the labour market?

The answer to the first question is straightforward - they form the largest fresh talent pool. In round figures there are 300,000 first degree graduates a year emerging from universities in the United Kingdom. Take away those who go overseas, those who continue in higher education and those taking a gap year, and there are still  something like 170,000 entering the UK labour market. Frankly, it's hard to ignore them!

Moving on to the question of what differentiates graduates, there several compelling reasons for recruiting and developing graduates.

  • Graduates undertake at least three year's higher education during which they will gain detailed knowledge and understanding of a discipline. As importantly, they will learn how to manage their learning and that's an essential requirement in the fast changing world of work. Reflect on how many new skills have you had to acquire in the past five years. The chances are that in the next five years you will learn even more - that's the world that graduates are moving into.
  • Employers rarely recruit on the basis of a degree alone. Increasingly they recruit against a set of competencies required to do the job. It would be wrong to assume that fresh graduates lack the competencies that businesses require. Studying and participating in extra curricular activities both help to develop valuable skills in students. And let's not forget that it is a rare student indeed who has not accumulated bags of work experience by the time they graduate. They earn and learn at one and the same time.
  • Being at university, often away from home, aids emotional as well as intellectual development. That extra maturity should help graduates be clear about what they want to achieve and how to go about it.
  • Forget the notion of 'dumbing down'. Even though the expansion of higher education has resulted in a wider range of abilities among the student intake, if employers want to identify and attract 'top talent' to ensure that they maintain their competitive edge, then it is to universities that they must turn.
  • Most graduates are at the starting gate as far as careers are concerned. They are open to new ideas and approaches, eager to learn and prove themselves. They fit the 'grow your own' model to a tee.
  • Many organisations want their workforce, for sound business reasons, to be representative of the communities they serve. The current crop of UK graduates is the most diverse ever.

So how do employers go about ensuring they get their share of the graduate talent pool?

With more graduates year on year, the challenge is to identify and compete for those you really want to attract to your business.

Graduate attraction is the cornerstone to any recruitment campaign. Ask yourself:

  • Why you want to recruit graduates?
  • What you want them to do?
  • How you are going to train them to do it?

Put another way, what do you expect from graduates and what can they expect from you in return? Utilising your market brand is important although easier for some businesses to exploit than others - especially those new to graduate recruitment.

Targeting the right graduates is the next challenge. If possible adopt an integrated marketing approach, incorporating written materials, media advertising, website content and other activities such as on campus presentations and careers fairs. You don't necessarily have to spend vast amounts of money. AGR member organisations, even those who recruit hundreds of graduates each year, look for ways of reducing unit costs.  It's not a big splash you are after but a campaign that gets the right messages across to the right types of candidates making the best use of resources including online technology and face-to-face contacts.

The next step is selecting the 'best fit' candidates from the application pool. Some employers receive large numbers of applications and narrowing the field down to manageable proportions can be quite a challenge. Screening criteria have to be lawful and fair. As well as having regard for existing employment legislation take note of the impending age discrimination bill which will outlaw selection criteria based on dates of birth from October 2006.

Increasing use is made of telephone screening, online testing and self deselection exercises to help candidates decide whether or not a vacancy is right for them before making a formal application. Whatever tools are used, try to ensure that there is enough flexibility to avoid missing out on the unpolished diamond.

There are plenty of external providers to turn to if the circumstances fit. Outsourcing the process is an option if you don't have the expertise in house or if you are looking to reduce costs; greater use of technology another but a balance has to be stuck between price and quality. Never forget that today's candidate may be tomorrow's customer. A bad application process could cost businesses dearly in the long run.

Beyond screening, employers who are recruiting more than one or two graduates often use assessment centres to help make the final selection. Perhaps the best assessment tool is work experience where both the business and the individual get the opportunity of an 'employment trial'. There are a range of such arrangements from summer internships to year long sandwich placements. Not forgetting the part-time student employee. Too few employers target this pool. The beauty of work experience is that all types of business, large and small, can arrange quality placements. I stress quality because the one downside of offering work experience is that if the experience is bad, it causes more harm than good.

So, is it worth the effort to recruit graduates? Well, the 600 plus businesses that form the membership of AGR clearly think so. But don't just take our word for it!

In 2004, we commissioned Dr Anthony Hesketh, of the Management School at the University of Lancaster, to undertake research into the added value that graduates, and in particular structured graduate programmes bring to organisations.

Adding Value beyond Measure demonstrated a raft of benefits of employing and developing graduates all of which benefit the bottom line:

  • The capacity to articulate innovations and the ability to cope with the changes that this brings.
  • Graduates can see the wood for the trees!
  • Developing faster than other employees and adding value more quickly. They hit the road running and demonstrate leadership qualities at a faster rate.
  • The skills to articulate ideas into the cut and thrust of working life, despite their limited experience.
  • Stimulating change in a fast moving world - not just accommodating it.
  • Not looking at things and thinking 'that's too difficult' but coming up with a solution and being innovative because they want to make their mark.

Hesketh's research suggests that graduates contribute a massive 1 billion of added value to the UK economy each year. But before you all rush out and grab the first graduates to emerge from your local university remember to ask yourself the questions contained in the early part of this feature.

Then you have to consider how you nurture and develop the talent you have brought to your organisation.

Whatever the size of your business it is important to have a strategy designed to develop talent.

Ideally, set up a development programme. Here are a few lines of advice to take on board if starting from scratch:

  • Learn from best practice both within your own sector and elsewhere (AGR is a sharing network that does just that)
  • Establish what you hope to get out of the programme (including a clearly defined business case)
  • Gain buy in from the business, from the Board down
  • Ensure you have an induction programme in place
  • Create an environment where the graduates can learn and grow
  • Encourage employees to take responsibility for their own learning
  • Establish a support network (consider mentoring)
  • Consult experts in learning development (externally or internally)
  • Keep things fresh by refining your training to the changing needs of the business
  • Monitor and evaluate the graduates' development

This last point, of course, is crucial to justifying the effort and expense of recruiting and developing graduates. Start by measuring their contribution to the business in terms of profit by assessing the delivery of projects and meeting agreed targets. Then measure their learning and development and rate of progress through the programme. This will in turn give an indication of the graduate's future potential.

AGR is party to a new tool which has been developed by the University of Lancaster Management School. Called the Graduate Score Card it is designed to help organisations monitor both costs and returns and make informed decisions about future investment and strategy. This is done through a variety of means including benchmarking measurement against other businesses.

Graduate recruitment is not a cheap option but it's a vital one for any business that believes that the contribution of their human capital is a major driver to business success. Building your own talent pipeline is going to have a much healthier impact on your bottom line than being at the mercy of the experienced hire market.

Carl Gilleard
Chief Executive
AGR (The Association of Graduate Recruiters)

Contact details:

The Innovation Centre
Warwick technology Park
CV34 6UW
Tel: 01926 623236
'Adding Value beyond Measure' can be purchased directly from AGR


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