An all-consuming appetite for graduates

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The Independent Online
Accountancy has said goodbye to `grunt' work, and consumer goods offer a fresh range of challenging jobs, writes Roger Trapp.

The university "milk round" has traditionally been dominated by two sectors with a seemingly unlimited, spongelike ability to soak up unsuspecting graduates. On the one hand have been the accountancy firms, promising recruits a general business training as if admitting that they know these youngsters really do not want to be accountants, but need a job of some sort. On the other are companies selling fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG - detergents, soaps and convenience foods, to the uninitiated), such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever, which have found countless highly educated folks seemingly set upon working on ever more outlandish products in the cause of developing careers in marketing.

Things have changed in recent years, though. Thanks to advances in technology, as well as changes in approach to the audit work that forms the core of their business, accountancy firms no longer hire armies of "grunts". And in the FMCG organisations, graduates are increasingly hired to fill particular needs in individual businesses.

This latter change has ramifications that young recruits may find a mixed blessing. First, it tends to mean that fewer people are recruited. Second, graduates very early on find themselves doing a real, challenging job, rather than spending months engaging in "industrial tourism".

As Hugh Stirk, national personnel manager for Unilever, explains, graduates "start off in subsidiaries. That's important to us because Unilever itself makes and sells nothing."

The central UK office - based in a grand Art Deco building close to London's Blackfriars railway station - selects individuals based on the needs of the various companies, such as the detergents operation Lever Brothers or the margarine maker Van den Bergh Foods, and allocates them accordingly.

It also runs a business education programme to run alongside the practical experience.

Also important is to ensure that the right candidates are available for management positions as they come up. The central office team runs a network of systems that, in Mr Stirk's words, "keeps an eye on people".

The final dimension is international. Unilever makes much of the fact that it gains a substantial share of revenue from markets that rivals are now only just entering. And though the Anglo-Dutch company is becoming less dependent on countries such as Britain for its executives, about a third of the approximately 1,800 managers working outside their home country are British. Recruits can work in one country, across a variety of companies, in one produce group in several countries, or whatever.

An illustration of how opportunities can arise is provided by a feature in the company newsletter Uniview. It describes how Kerris Bright started with the organisation in 1991 as a fragrance marketeer, having joined the management development scheme with a PhD in molecular neuroscience. Now, after working in the UK, the Netherlands and the United States, she is UK general manager for Unipath, with responsibility for women's health care products, including the revolutionary and somewhat controversial contraception system launched in late 1996 under the name Persona.

Though Ms Bright was inspired by the example of Steph Senior, another woman from a scientific background who rose to a top marketing role, the company is conscious that, like many other organisations, it has not done enough to recruit and retain women. However, Mr Stirk claims that the results of a 10-year project are now starting to come through.

Unilever is also seeking to improve its ability to hire MBAs and managers who have started off their careers elsewhere. But graduates will always be important, he says.