Training: Aiming for a higher degree of success: Consultants suggest new tack to make more of graduate recruits

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WITH THE number of graduates entering the job market set to increase further, a new report suggests that British business is still failing to harness their potential fully.

Yellowbrick, training and development consultants, studied companies and public sector bodies, employing 2,000 new graduates between them, for a year. On the basis of this research, it has produced a report accompanied by detailed and sometimes radical recommendations for change.

The principal beneficiaries should be the companies themselves. Graduate recruitment is extremely expensive: including salary, training and overheads, a graduate will cost an average of pounds 100,000 for the first three years. Whether or not the company derives a return on this investment is traditionally seen to depend on its skill in developing the graduate and its ability to retain his or her services.

Retention is a key issue. Department of Employment statistics suggest that the average time a graduate will spend in their first job is three years. Considering that one of the prime motivations for companies investing in graduate training is to produce the next generation of management, it is understandable that improving retention is a central aim.

Yellowbrick challenges this approach. Although its recommendations should incidentally achieve better retention by improving graduate satisfaction, the report encourages companies to be realistic, accept a level of drop-out and adjust their thinking, rather than pursue an unattainable grail.

After all, as the report points out, companies must analyse such statistics from a qualitative as well as a quantitative perspective. Are the graduate trainees left at year five necessarily future top management material, or plodders who have settled into a routine?

Instead, graduate recruitment should form part of an overall management development and recruitment policy. The report cites a multinational at which 45 per cent of senior managers are graduate recruits, 10 per cent other internal recruits and 45 per cent external recruits. The last category dominates the top positions.

This is typical of the way Yellowbrick seeks to question the assumptions underpinning graduate recruitment and development. Do you really need a graduate for this job or would a school leaver do? If graduates are destined to be future top managers, then is the recruitment process designed specifically to isolate the appropriate qualities and training to develop them? The message is clear: ignore received wisdom, decide what you want from your graduate intake and tailor recruitment and training to achieve it.

The report highlights a number of innovative schemes. In recruitment, for example, Fidelity Investments has started offering one-year contracts as a sort of two-way extended interview to test suitability, and Coca-Cola is launching a four- year 'earn and learn' scheme, comprising a 35-hour working week and 20 hours studying for a management degree.

Boots wins praise for harnessing the creative potential of graduates effectively. It runs a four-day annual graduate conference for its new intake, at which recruits examine the strategy of a business unit and suggest improvements. Their ideas are sought by senior management.

Predictably, but it would seem necessarily, there is an emphasis throughout the report on allowing graduates greater scope to develop initiative and on harnessing their talents quickly - particularly important if low retention is accepted and the company wants to make a return on its investment. One company questioned claimed it expected a real contribution from 'Day two'. It said: 'By day two, the coaching should be outbalanced by the return.'

In other companies, the level of graduate frustration is striking: 'The whole idea of recruiting externally was to bring in new blood, new ideas,' said one recruit. 'But anybody who goes against conventional ideas and traditions finds it works against them.'

As well as these broad general themes, the report offers detailed advice and examples from companies on every aspect of graduate development from strategy through recruitment; induction; the graduate/ manager relationship; harnessing initiative; the role of a mentor; training and feedback.

The authors offer five key recommendations:

Make graduate recruitment a long-term strategic exercise to continually improve the quality of the workforce and with a focus on future, not past, requirements. The programme should not reflect short-term economic fluctuations.

Adapt a realistic approach to recruitment. Many organisations portray themselves as dynamic but are not. Graduates typically join a firm with too high expectations and a rapid shift to pessimism can result in them leaving.

Expect a lot from your graduate trainees. This is the basis for getting the most out of them. Treat people as trainees for five years, and they will perform as trainees.

Tap into the fresh creative potential offered by each new intake.

Assign new recruits to competent and professional managers. Poor management was one of the main reasons for graduate underperformance.

Delivering the Promise: Recruiting, Training and Retaining New Graduates ( pounds 295) is available from Yellowbrick, Suite E5, Block 5 Templeton Business Centre, Glasgow G40 1D.

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