Fast Track: Hunters on the prowl

Corporate recruitment consultants are increasingly targeting graduates.
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The Independent Culture
The mere mention of "headhunting" probably conjures up images of high-flying executives being snapped up by top multinationals. Certainly not graduates and undergraduates with little experience of the working world. Little wonder, then, at Felicity Fisher's amazement when a headhunting organisation approached her while she was an undergraduate at Durham University. "I was asked whether I'd be interested in joining the general management trainee scheme with their client, WH Smith," she says. "There was an informal first interview followed by a day at an assessment centre, after which I was given an official offer. I was incredibly flattered and surprised. I'd been expecting to fill out hundreds of application forms before even being considered anywhere."

Some headhunting consultancies, such as Moloney Search, are equally interested in graduates who have already had one or two jobs and are looking for a change of direction. "We call this our `Bright Young Things' practice, and it's enabled us to place hundreds of graduates with the highest potential in firms they had previously known little about," says Curly Moloney, head of graduate recruitment practice.

In truth, says Shauna Horgan, vice-president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, headhunting is relatively rare at graduate level. But there is no doubt it's on the increase. "All universities are finding that the milk round is not working in the way that it did traditionally," she says. "And with almost double the number of students in higher education than a decade ago, it's hardly surprising."

"It would be impossible for us to send teams of recruiters to more than a small proportion of universities," says Jane Maloy of WH Smith. "But we don't want to miss the best graduates, so we came to the conclusion that using a headhunting firm that works on a national basis was the solution."

Indeed, even those employers who haven't opted for headhunting have been forced to tighten up graduate recruitment processes. The Institute of Employment Studies IES) reports that two-thirds of the members of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) now favour particular institutions, while just under half have contacts with specific university departments. A spokesperson says: "Very often, it's just a desperate attempt to reduce the annual avalanche of applications to more manageable proportions."

Lloyds TSB is one such company. "We select the universities worth targeting based on past experiences," says a spokesperson.

Other employers, such as Asda, are going for more innovative methods. "Headhunting is too expensive; brochures are boring; presentations only reach a limited audience. So we've gone for videos," says Andrea Vowles. "We make available to students and graduates a student-style docu-soap showing a day in the life of someone working in Asda on a graduate recruitment scheme. The point is not to glamorise the work, because that would attract a huge number of unsuitable candidates. Instead, we show the long hours, the pressurised environment and the nitty-gritty of everyday life, thereby putting off those who couldn't hack it. It's a wonderful system because it forces the graduates to complete the initial part of the screening process."

According to the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, another increasingly favoured method for graduate recruiters is sponsoring individual lectures. It works because the employer has some input into advertising the kind of graduates they want, while at the same time, gaining knowledge about the content of various degrees.

After all, it's not just the fast-rising number of graduates that is causing the sudden trend in the tightening up of recruitment methods, says Katrina Rostrup, associate director of BNB Graduate Recruitment. "There is a bewildering array of subjects and an increasing number of degrees combine several of them together, making it damn near impossible for employers to identify suitable people in conventional ways."

In addition, new research shows that three times as many students work part-time during term time to underwrite the cost of their studies as a decade ago. "Final-year students therefore often haven't got the time or inclination to sit through employers' presentations or read their brochures. Many don't get round to applying for jobs until after they've graduated," says Horgan.

But there are worries. "Some companies are targeting graduates only from the older, more prestigious universities," says Richard Pearson, director of the IES. "They may, for instance, judge universities by their research rankings or they may go by a gut reaction that Oxbridge or the redbrick universities are the best. But many employers don't need the `best' graduates because they cannot offer jobs or salaries that suit them. These employers would be well advised to alter the criteria they use when selecting universities to visit and cultivate."

Chris Long, head of consumer practice at Norman Broadbent International, adds that employers are often guilty of selecting the cheapest headhunting firms which are simply not specialist enough. "To work successfully, consultants should not only be equipped with a thorough knowledge of their clients' markets, strategies and organisational style, but they should also have an in-depth understanding of both the content and context of the role they are recruiting for. All too often, this doesn't happen and there is a lack of mutual understanding between consultants and clients, with companies ending up with quite the wrong job candidates."

Other companies, however, are ahead of the game. Tesco, for example, is appealing to different types of graduates for different programmes. There is Excel - a general management training scheme aimed at those with upper-second class degrees or better - and the Select programme, which is more appropriate for graduates with lower grades. And it is paying off. Staff loyalty at Tesco is at an all-time high and, says HR director, Lesley James, it is aiming to oust Marks & Spencer as the retailer with the best reputation for treating staff.