Business Essentials: 'Graduates can't fathom us out'

The communications consultancy Octopus is struggling for a profile among those it wants to employ. Kate Hilpern reports

Octopus, a communications consul- tancy based in Windsor, wants to set up a graduate recruitment scheme but doesn't know how to go about it. "Our main problem is attracting graduates in the first place," explains director Jon Lonsdale.

Octopus, a communications consul- tancy based in Windsor, wants to set up a graduate recruitment scheme but doesn't know how to go about it. "Our main problem is attracting graduates in the first place," explains director Jon Lonsdale.

The company is three years old, has 14 employees and is growing nicely with clients such as Burger King. Recently, Octopus took on its first graduate trainee and has been highly impressed with the impact she's made - far more so, in fact, than with some of the more experienced people it has recruited in the past. "We have therefore decided to focus on getting in really good graduates and fast-tracking them up to consultants within six months," says Mr Lonsdale.

Communications consultancies are a relatively new concept. They aim to combine traditional brand marketing with the work of a management consultancy.

"So what we're not after are people who want to work purely in creative roles like PR, the media or advertising. Nor do we want management consultant types who are completely analytical. Rather, we want something in the middle: a creative brain and an awareness of business issues, coupled with excellent communication skills."

This, says Mr Lonsdale, probably poses the biggest recruitment challenge. "It's a career that doesn't appear in graduate listings or fit into a clear category."

Mr Lonsdale has tried three approaches to setting up a graduate scheme, and all have failed. "First, the route of recruitment agencies hasn't worked. For one thing, we've found they tend to be better at finding senior people, and for another, we pay fairly high salaries, so their fees [a percentage of salary if the candidate is taken on] are high for a small company like ours."

His second attempt involved advertising in some of the big universities. "I was very surprised that this yielded no decent applications at all.

"Finally, we tried contacting a few course directors at universities around the country that specialise in management. But again, this proved less fruitful than expected."

What Octopus cannot afford to do is attend the big graduate trade shows. "We are well aware that we are competing with the Accentures of this world in trying to find bright people, so this may be a problem. Put this together with the fact that we are not listed in careers libraries, and we face an even bigger challenge," admits Mr Lonsdale. "Being located outside London may also be a barrier."

But on his side, he says, are important selling points. Octopus can offer graduates a consultancy role within six months and the work is stimulating and varied. "Also, our starting band for a trainee consultant is around £18,000 to £20,000, which is a good starting salary for a first job."

In addition, the firm is willing to introduce a more appropriate benefits package. "I have a hunch that graduates don't want the obvious things like healthcare and pensions, but I'm not sure what they do want - a car, perhaps, or extra training?"

Essentially, Octopus wants to know what it has to do to draw in, and hang on to, some of today's top university leavers. "Marketing always seems to feature top of the list for graduates' favourite careers, so where are these graduates?"

www.octopuscomms.net

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Carl Gilleard, chief executive, the Association of Graduate Recruiters

"Be clear what you are looking for. Fine-tune the specification: what are the 'must have' and desirable competencies?

"Flesh out the fast-track programme: what does it involve and how will it work? Switched-on graduates will want to know.

"The starting salary is reasonable - the median average is £20,700. A car would be a bonus.

"Turning to recruitment, don't rule out agencies and jobs boards; some specialise in graduate jobs. See the business directory at www.agr.org.uk for examples. Remember, payment is by results. Negotiate on fees.

"Big may not be best when it comes to universities. Start in your own region. Approach university careers services, explaining your needs. Can they help you reach the right students? Having identified appropriate institutions, cultivate them. Campus-based careers fairs are inexpensive and can help build your brand.

"Use your successful graduate in your search. She'd make a great ambassador."

Terry Jones, communications co-ordinator, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services

"The small employer has always had a problem in gaining the attention of students. Here are some strategies that other 'minnows' have found successful.

"Build a relationship with someone at the careers service of two or three nearby universities. Refuse to confine yourself to email or fax. Invite them to your office or visit theirs. Enthuse them about the role. Seek their expertise.

"Look at the low-cost and no-cost options of publicising a job in the university. Do they have a website, electronic job list, paper bulletin? See if you can get an entry in the marketing/ PR and business/consulting sections - that way you contact the 'creative' consultants and the analytical creatives.

"Study the possibilities of a campus visit - a talk to students at lunchtime, some 'first interviews'. Consulting and marketing are among the most popular options for students and 'fast-track' is a phrase familiar to them. Make your smallness a virtue. Be personal."

Jessica Jarvis, adviser, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"Graduates look for a good salary, training, a challenging job and career opportunities. Octopus appears to offer all of these, so it should concentrate on raising awareness.

"Think how best to target graduates. Use your website to give information on the jobs; this can be very cost-effective and is also the most common search tool used by students. You can then advertise on other relevant websites to direct people to your own.

"Another option is offering work experience to students at local universities who are studying relevant subjects. This allows you to meet and give trials to individuals who you could recruit on graduation."

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