GRADUATE+: Why the best are breaking bounds

GRADUATE+
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The Independent Online
In the turmoil of the endlessly changing job market, many graduates are seeking training that offers a diversity of skills. Rachelle Thackray reports on an innovative scheme in advertising and communications.

Samuel Johnson said "there is in London all that life can afford". Two- hundred years later, his adage is well appreciated by graduates, who can find a huge range of opportunities in the capital.

But many of the training schemes on offer do not provide the variety of skills that may be needed in the future. Top graduates are increasingly seeking "portfolio" training, mirroring a marketplace of managers intent on broadening their experience and adding to their skills. Companies are beginning to follow suit, offering graduates the chance to get a wider picture of a particular industry while building up specific areas of expertise.

One innovative scheme has been devised by the communications and marketing group WPP, which has companies in 90 countries. It is offering up to nine fellowships to graduates and MBAs, with the chance to gain experience in diverse marketing environments, both in London and internationally.

Sameer Modha, 23, who graduated in physics, philosophy and sociology from St John's College, Cambridge, was one of the first recruits when the programme began three years ago. He spent his first fellowship year as a researcher at the Henley Centre, his second at brand communications company J Walter Thompson, and is now at the London-based design consultancy Coley Porter Bell.

He won a fellowship on the strength of interviews after submitting an application form which consisted of mini-essays on the topics of "brands are dead" and Microsoft. "WPP sent out a mailshot, a glamorous-looking postcard, and I remember thinking it was just the job for me," he says. "I was a bit of a marketing obsessive, and I had already set up a student advertising society. At the time, I was quite scared of the big companies, and WPP was the only job I applied for. At the time it was purely that it fitted the scope of my interests."

But he was focused enough, he says, to make the most of the three-year programme; his ultimate goal is communications planning.

"I think if you approach it with the attitude `I'm not entirely sure what I want to do, so I'll use it as a sweet shop pick 'n' mix counter', then it's a waste of the scheme. You need a story that can stitch three years together. You need to pick up something useful from one company to take to another."

Entering a company on a placement rather than as a long-term employee can generate misgivings. "You are always within the company but not of it. Sometimes people see you as a spy. We are always introduced as the `Supergrads', so immediately you are on the defensive."

He claims that far from being starry-eyed high-flyers, he and contemporaries have seen the communications industry in its warts-and-all state. "The thing we have in common is angst, really. We have quite an ambivalence to paid-for communications."

Meir Calderon, a 30-year-old MBA, applied because he wanted to avoid a structured traineeship. "I wanted something as close as possible to being a career entrepreneur while working for a company," he says. "I wanted to work in an environment where I could be unique.

"When you go into consulting, you are thrown in with a class of 20 people just like you; they all speak the same language and it creates an environment. These are companies that have a long history and they know where they want to slot you. I didn't want my future mapped out like that.

"When you first come out of an MBA course, you want to be able to apply your technical skills. I think my biggest surprise was that the skills weren't as relevant as day-to-day organisational management issues, and understanding how to manage projects."

Calderon, who did his MBA at Columbia University, New York, is determined to keep his options open. He has worked at the US-based PR company Hill and Knowlton, and is now in London at J Walter Thompson. Last week, he was in and out of Edinburgh pubs, conducting market research about young peoples' lifestyles. He enjoys the diversity. "My goal is to become a marketing generalist, because I think businesses demand that," he says. "I told WPP my goal was to become a microcosm of them; globally integrated."

The scheme is proving an attractive option to foreign students, says Feona McEwan, WPP communications director. She has sent out 700 application forms this year, many to students in Central Europe who came across programme information on the Internet.

"Students are very drawn by the variety of skills, and if they don't know before they start work what is going to be their particular bent, this gives them a taste of a range of things," she said.

Application details for the marketing fellowships are available from WPP London, 27 Farm Street, London W1X 6RD. Mark envelopes "Fellowship enquiries". Application forms must be in by 1 December (MBA) or 11 December (graduate).

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