Fast Track: There's a future in steel

Far from being the behemoth of a dying industry that it is imagined to be, British Steel is a flourishing company which is proving attractive to ambitious graduates
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The Independent Culture
TO THE uninitiated, British Steel is probably the last place an ambitious graduate should go looking for a career. After all, it can be seen as a symbol of UK industry in recent decades. It seems that if it makes the news at all, it is because it is closing a plant or laying off hundreds of workers.

Not surprisingly, this is an image which the company's executives are keen to dispel. David John, manager responsible for management development and selection, says that this is all a "matter of history," emphasising that "this is not a company that is in decline". Indeed, he claims that graduates from a large variety of backgrounds are becoming increasingly attracted to beginning their careers there.

In fact, the latest results show that earnings have slipped over the past three years. But, according to the company, this is due to the strengthening of sterling and global financial turmoil. The reality is, points out John, that despite this apparent decline, the company achieved a pre-tax profit of pounds 315m on a turnover of nearly pounds 7bn. The organisation concludes that, by just about any measure, it is among the world's top three steel producers. "The company is hi-tech, confident about the future and has a serious international aspect," says John. "The type of training we offer is second to none."

According to John, the most sought-after graduates are seeking work at British Steel, not least because of the overseas aspect of the company's work. Last year, the UK accounted for just 43 per cent of turnover, with the rest of Europe taking up a further 39 per cent. The company supplies steel for well-known international construction projects such as the world's tallest building - Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers - and the new Hong Kong airport. In addition, it has an increasing number of production, sales and distribution activities in the United States and elsewhere. As a result, some 20 per cent of its 40,000 employees work outside the UK. "We believe that the international direction of prospective growth gives us the chance to broaden people across national and cultural boundaries," says John.

Even within the UK, there is great variety. John himself has, during a career spanning three decades, worked within the personnel area at several sites around Britain. Comparatively recent recruits are also able to move between several plants as part of their training. What's more, maintains the company - which is conscious of competing for staff with the likes of Shell, Unilever and the City - the salaries and benefits "more than hold their own".

Sharon Protheroe joined British Steel a few years ago, after completing an electrical engineering degree at Swansea University. Now a technical engineer and team leader in the energy department at the Port Talbot works in South Wales, she received her initial training over the course of 12 months at different plants around the country. This spell included three placements which enabled her to work on specific projects and see the business benefits of her efforts.

In addition, Protheroe has attended courses covering all aspects of British Steel's business at the Ashorne Hill centre near Leamington Spa, and has been assigned a mentor - a more senior manager who has helped her put together her own personal development plan.

But, while engineers and other science graduates form a good proportion of the approximately 180 graduates whom the company takes on in a typical year, recruiters are not only looking for those skills. Richard Goodwin, who joined five years ago with a degree in economics and international studies from Warwick University, has, for instance, worked mainly in sales and marketing. He does, however, point out that he has taken "the opportunity to do shifts in the hot sheet finishing mill and at the weighbridge". He was particularly attracted by the potential for moving around - emphasising that during his time with the company, he has been through three businesses.

Nevertheless, John stresses that individuals do not always move far afield. And at a time when the issue of partners' careers is becoming increasingly important, this can come as a relief to some. The complexity and variety of British Steel's business - particularly in such areas of concentration as South Wales and the North-east - means that a range of experience can be picked up without too much travel becoming involved. It is, for example, possible to have a varied career without moving more than commuting distance from Sheffield.

British Steel emphasises that its recruitment process is not as black and white as it is for some other organisations. For instance, the company is an established user of work placements and student sponsorships - a technique for spotting future recruits that is attracting increasing interest from politicians and others concerned about the links between education and university.

Some students are sponsored throughout their university courses, while others decide to apply later on as they start to think more about careers. John says that, all in all, about 25 to 30 per cent of recruits come to the company that way.

With programmes split into such disciplines as finance, logistics and sales, as well as the likes of engineering and research and development, British Steel is going to a good deal of trouble to attract the right students. And this, stresses the organisation, is all part of a wide- ranging effort which is not restricted to a single push at "Milk Round" time. "We don't take them in one hit. It's a year-round activity. We take them from whatever source we can, whenever we can".

The recruitment programme can even begin long before school leaving age. There is an extensive range of schemes for schools, while a "Sammy Steel" video and book for children emphasise the huge number of uses to which steel is put - around the home and elsewhere - and also the extent to which it can be recycled.

Once the company has got its recruits, it is anxious to make quick use of them. John talks of graduates being given "early responsibilities" and adds that "people are deliberately encouraged to take substantial appointments quickly".

British Steel is also adopting the team-working management methods pioneered in the US steel industry by such newcomers as Nucor. This will, in the future, make a readiness to take on wide-ranging responsibilities even more of a prerequisite for those prepared to defy the image of a dying industry.