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Smart moves: Audit balances its graduate recruitment

The Audit Commission is one of Britain's two main public audit bodies. It is also aiming to become one of the accountancy profession's most forward thinking employers in its equal opportunities policies and practices.

About 30 graduates a year are recruited by the Commission, most for accountancy jobs at its District Audit arm, which is responsible for auditing local authorities and the National Health Service trusts.

Graduates are trained in their posts to become accountants, supported in their studies to-wards qualifications under the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy training schemes.

Other graduate recruits go to work at the Commission headquarters at Vincent Square in Westminster, where they analyse information and statistics for the Commission's reports, which publicise best (and worst) practice in the public sector.

District Audit is keen to consider graduates irrespective of their degree subjects while the Commission headquarters looks for those with more "relevant" backgrounds. "We have found no advantage in getting District Audit accountancy trainees with relevant degree subjects - in fact we like to get a good range of backgrounds," says Tessa Lemon, equal opportunities officer at the Commission.

But the Commission is convinced it must diversify its workforce. Specifically, it wants to recruit more ethnic minority graduates. "We are very conscious of our position as a public body which talks about best practice to clients, and of the work that the NHS and local government does in this area," says Ms Lemon. "We want to be among the leaders.

"In the last few years, District Audit has had to focus on market testing - to go out and win work. We have to present a face that reflects the composition of the client itself and their local population. If you are going to make a presentation to a London or a Midlands client, which has a mixed workforce, they are going to want to see people who reflect the make-up of their own workforce and population. And we are very conscious that we are not winning all the staff we would want to."

Ms Lemon concedes that while the Audit Commission has adopted strong equal opportunities policies, at a senior level there are still relatively few ethnic minority staff. "It is much easier to do this at the graduate level," she explains. "Hopefully they are going to be the people who will stay with us and move up the organisation."

The Commission's recruitment strategy has consequently in-cluded targeting institutions, such as the University of East London, with a high proportion of ethnic minority undergraduates.

It is also supporting the Windsor Fellowship, which asks employers to sponsor ethnic minority undergraduates by giving them personal development programmes. Students visit organisations between terms. The aim is to assist high flyers to land good jobs after graduation.

The Commission is sponsoring two students through the fellowship this year and hopes to sponsor more in the future.

Discussions are taking place with the National Mentoring Consortium, a campaign to encourage the mentoring of young adults from ethnic minorities, in which the Commission wants to participate.

"Once we get people to join we must manage them properly and retain them," says Ms Lemon. "Where their numbers are small, ethnic minority recruits might feel isolated. We have been running focus groups to get ethnic minority staff to talk about what we might do better."

This is leading to the creation of a self-managed group for ethnic minority staff to help them discuss problems and to lobby.The focus group indicates that the organisation is working well with its ethnic minority staff.

"We have equal opportunities representatives around the country," says Ms Lemon, "so that all staff are aware of racial discrimination and racial harassment, and we aim to do training on this for everybody."

While new ethnic minority recruits seem happy with the way the Commission implements its equal opportunities policies, more experienced staff have had some concerns. "We are listening to them," says Ms Lemon. "We realise the importance of the message coming from the top and are asking senior managers to set the standard. Andrew Foster, our chief executive, has just signed up to the Leadership Challenge, a Commission for Racial Equality initiative. We must make sure that our internal management does things in the right way. It is about getting both things right - recruitment and retention."