A super market for the ambitious

Roger Trapp checks out Tesco in our continuing series on management training courses
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The Independent Online
The old jibe that England is a nation of shopkeepers does not appear to be troubling the current generation of university graduates. The Boots Company's recent announcement that it had received 25,000 inquiries about graduate opportunities this year - twice as many as in any previous year - only strengthens the impression that retail is hot at the moment. And few companies in this sector are hotter than Tesco, which recently overtook J Sainsbury as the nation's top supermarket group.

Steve Hammett, Tesco's retail personnel and training director, says the group received a "phenomenal" number of applications - almost 10,000 - for graduate trainee positions this year. "The biggest problem is making the right selections."

Because the company sees the intake of graduates as vital to its continuing success, it puts a lot of effort into making the selection process as right as it can. And with the number being hired for the two-year Excel programme increasing to 300 this year, that effort is becoming even more important.

Those already involved in the scheme, which was introduced four years ago as a flexible way of developing future managers, speak glowingly of its value. Steve Bradshaw, 25, feels the mix of formal and on-the-job training that he is receiving in the computer department is enjoyable, as it combines practical experience with intensive instruction, in such areas as programming. A former PhD student, he does not feel out of place - about half of those on the scheme have not come straight from university, he says.

Another who fits into that category is Jo Nel. Two years younger than Steve, she worked at an outdoor development centre immediately after completing her geology and oceanography degree at Plymouth Polytechnic. Having decided on a career in personnel, she joined Tesco a few months later and has been impressed by the flexibility of the training. She sees the programme's greatest strength as being the opportunity it provides to develop in an environment at once safe, yet also affected by real life. Now working in retail development management, she says an important part of the course is being given responsibility for a section of the store. "You're left holding the baby, which is good," she says.

This approach also impressed Denise Peart, who joined the Excel programme in September 1994. During her "store familiarisation" she was in charge of areas of the coffee shop, including monitoring the quality of food and the disposal of waste. Though a shock at first, she found the experience rewarding and is pleased that the scheme allows her to move on at her own pace. "I didn't want to be held back," she says, adding that she chose Tesco largely because the training seemed to be specific to the individual.

As a result, Ms Peart, who is 25, shares the view of other graduates that they do not feel part of a standard training programme. Even fellow trainees in the same store will be on different tracks, while the programme does not last exactly two years for everybody: some will complete it in less time, others will take a little longer.

Mr Hammett says this is all part of the attempt to develop a diverse group of managers. A questionnaire at the first stage of the recruitment process is designed to detect whether applicants have the right kind of behavioural skills - an ability to get on with people and to handle responsibility. Those who pass are then invited to meet managers at the stores to see whether they feel the environment would suit them. This is very successful - applicants find it hard to believe the company is spending so much time on them.

All this is followed by interviews leading to a one-day selection programme, during which would-be trainees are put through the sort of exercises now commonly used in recruitment. As Mr Hammett acknowledges, it is a lot of effort, but the strain is borne by spreading it among a wide range of managers.

In keeping with the notion that most people are hired for general management roles rather than for specific functions, the company does not insist that graduates have studied any particular courses. Far more important are drive and ambition. Moreover, acceptance for the scheme is only the start. And, as Ms Nel points out, the training does not end when the programme finishes. Like many other companies, Tesco is trying to instil a philosophy of constant and continuous training.

Thus responsibility for developing the trainees is given not to the training department but to the line managers. "The local manager knows he's responsible for delivering a finished product," explains Mr Hammett.

Meanwhile, the trainees are encouraged to believe they can make a real difference to the company by taking part in annual business challenges. One such exercise came up with the idea - now being introduced - of extending the company's successful Club Card to those in further education.