A DIY store known for hiring the over-50s also wants the best of new graduates. Meg Carter reports
The B&Q chain is widely known for actively recruiting people aged 50 and over - an attempt to side-step the effects of the demographic time-bomb and to establish a less mobile, better-informed work-force. However, the company is also investing in attracting and keeping younger recruits at graduate entry level, too.

Today, B&Q is the country's largest DIY retailer with 280 stores and just under 20,000 staff. It operates in a particularly buoyant sector of the retail business, thanks to the Brits' apparently insatiable appetite for home improvement. In the year to January 1996, B&Q's profits were pounds 55m; first-half profits in l996-7 were pounds 47m.

"We're working harder to understand what our employees want to do - how they want their careers to develop," the UK managing director, Martin Toogood, says. "We've become sensitive to the fact that in the past, retail has been considered a quick turnover, short-term job option."

The company is introducing a new format of B&Q store, B&Q Warehouse, twice the size of a football pitch, which require many, many extra staff. "Given our expansion plans we expect to recruit an extra 1,800 staff this year - a figure likely to remain constant for some years to come."

On top of this 1,800, B&Q will also take on a number of graduate entry-level management trainees - 85 on its own training scheme and a further 15 who will pass through B&Q stores while on B&Q parent's Kingfisher's fast-track management training course. B&Q trainees will either have a degree, HND or five years' retail experience behind them; the Kingfisher scheme trainees typically have at least a 2.1 honours degree.

Anyone who wants to move up within B&Q - either in-store or behind the scenes in marketing, buying or systems - must have hands-on experience of retailing, Toogood says. Which is why the B&Q scheme involves trainees moving around the country on placement at different branches, gradually building experience of larger stores, different departments and greater responsibility.

Practical experience is balanced by residential courses at Manchester Metropolitan University to study marketing; Kingfisher trainees take courses at Templeton College, Oxford. "We are looking for people with team and people management skills," Toogood adds. "We can give them the business and DIY expertise." Starting salaries range from pounds 14,500 to pounds l7,400 for Kingfisher trainees.

Once on the scheme, B&Q management trainees can expect to become store managers within three to five years; Kingfisher fast-track candidates will join the company's top 200 managers within eight to 10 years. "The more flexible you are about where and how you work, the quicker you can move up the tree," Toogood says.

And advancement in the retail business can be rapid. Kate Lydall, 24, joined B&Q two years ago, having spent a year travelling after graduating in history and law at Nene College, Northampton. She joined as a management trainee in September 1995; earlier this year she became assistant manager of one of two B&Q branches in Bradford.

"I had already worked in retail to tide me over whilst at university," she explains. "Although I wanted to go into law at the end of my degree, after returning from travelling in Europe I decided retail made more sense for me. It was because of the variety of work, the chance to work with people and the ability to move upwards relatively fast."

She says she was attracted by B&Q's recruitment advertising, which showed pictures of trainees "who didn't look how you'd imagine retail managers to be". It was a different approach which carried through to the recruitment process, she says. "It followed through in the way they greeted us - previous years' graduates were on hand to talk to us - the interview and assessment centre."

Six months after starting the training scheme, Lydall joined an in-house brand-development team known as "Operation Wheel" which upgrades and updates store design and layout at selected branches. She was appointed assistant project manager and worked there until this spring.

Her present job of assistant manager, however, is a daunting responsibility, she says. "In effect they say `Right, you've learned the theory, now show us what you can do'." Her responsibilities cover all aspects of the hardware, showroom and decorative departments as well as overseeing the shop floor.

"Once you're appointed an assistant manager, you are very much on your own although an area manager monitors your performance. By this time, however, you know your strengths and your weaknesses and, in my case, exactly what I need to do to become a store manager." Lydall hopes to achieve that goal within two years.

Not everyone automatically moves up the store management hierarchy, Toogood says. "We are also encouraging a growing number to move into other areas, such as marketing and buying, although we prefer people to do so from an in-store retail background."

Recently introduced appraisal schemes have been designed to ensure employee aspirations are better understood, to ensure that careers develop along chosen paths instead of staff feeling they have to leave if they want to progress. "That's why we are confident we can satisfy most of the longer term ambitions of every one of our staff," he addsn