Sponsorship offers benefits for both employer and graduate, says Philip Schofield
Each graduate vacancy attracted an average of 87 applications last year, according to a survey by PA Consulting. Employers who sponsor undergraduates through all or part of their degree courses might appear to be wasting their money. However, sponsorship appears to be a good investment and offers employers a variety of benefits.

Even during the worst of the recession employers were unable to recruit enough graduates with the qualities they needed. The PA survey reports that last year 38 per cent of companies were unable to fill all their vacancies because of increasing competition for "calibre candidates", more rigorous selection and a drop in the quality of graduates. A separate survey for the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) similarly reported recruitment shortfalls because "the quality of applicants was not sufficiently high".

Quality in graduate recruitment is not so much a matter of having a first- class degree as of having a portfolio of work- related transferable skills. PA says that successful graduates entering permanent jobs for the first time are "equipped not only with a good degree, but with effective interpersonal skills, commercial awareness and probably some relevant work experience".

Gill Court, of the Institute of Employment Studies, writing in the latest IES quarterly newsletter, says: "Employers are looking for a combination of academic ability and a range of additional skills, such as business awareness, communication skills, team working and leadership. One of the most effective ways students can demonstrate these skills is to gain work experience."

She says that employers "benefit from offering such experience as it allows them to assess individuals over a longer period than when using traditional selection methods".

Sponsorship enables employers to secure a supply of scarce graduates without having to compete with other employers in their final year. They can then assess their potential over a sustained period. Through a combination of relevant training and work experience during vacations and placements, they can give students the additional skills they need before joining the organisation full time.

As a result, employers find that sponsored recruits usually progress faster than direct entrants in their early years. Moreover, if sponsored students are chosen well, they make effective on-campus ambassadors for the organisations that sponsor them.

Students also benefit from sponsorship. The financial support, usually through a combination of a bursary (typically pounds 1,000 a year) and paid employment during vacations and possibly placements, is obviously helpful. The longer-term benefits are even greater.

Sponsored students can better relate their academic work to the outside world and so their studies tend to be more focused. The work experience and training provides them with highly marketable skills. And although few sponsors guarantee a job on graduation, two-thirds of sponsored students join their sponsor. Those who do not still find it easier to find a job than those who were not sponsored. Moreover, according to the 1995 AGR survey of graduate salaries, sponsored graduates can expect a starting salary pounds 495 above the average and are likely to make faster career progression.

One snag many students see in sponsorship is that they may be contractually tied to working for their sponsor for years after graduation. They fear their sponsoring employers may not be what they initially seem, or that their own interests and aspirations may change during their course.

In fact, few sponsors impose such a condition. In one directory detailing sponsors' employment conditions, only one in 10 listed any such requirement.

Most employers accept that sponsorship is a mutual testing period and that neither party is committed beyond graduation. On the other hand, no employer will sponsor anyone they think is motivated solely by money. Candidates must show an interest in the organisation and its activities and appear likely to make their early career in the organisation after graduation.

Sponsorship is most common in the engineering and technology disciplines. However, some employers, especially in the financial sector, retailing and the armed forces, are prepared to sponsor any discipline.

It is not clear whether sponsorship is growing or in decline. The AGR survey Graduate Salaries and Vacancies 1995, conducted by the IES, found that 13 per cent of all graduates recruited by AGR members had been sponsored. In 1994, this had fallen to 10.6 per cent. The total number of graduates was down by almost 17 per cent. However, a drop in sponsorships during the recession may only now be working its way through the system.

Roly Cockman, executive secretary of the AGR, says that although firm evidence is unavailable, he believes employer sponsorship is picking up once more. However, he sees "a trend to sponsor more people for less time, mainly in the final year".

Finding a sponsor remains hard. Fearful of attracting too many applications (most receive at least 100 for each place), many employers do not advertise their sponsorships. They prefer to work with academic departments and tutors to identify potential candidates. Many employers now sponsor only part-way through a course and tend to select from those who have done vacation work or had sandwich course placements with them.

Prospective students can find out from admissions staff or the course tutor which employers, if any, sponsor people through a particular course. Alternatively, they can look at the three publications that carry listings of sponsors.

The most comprehensive is Sponsorship for Students 1996, published by Hobsons Publishing, which carries details of 246 sponsoring employers. Everything You Wanted to Know About Sponsorship But Were Afraid to Ask, the official guide of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, published every two years by Amoeba Publications, details 103 sponsoring employers as well as listing a number of scholarships, grants and loans.

Prospective engineering students should also look at Sponsorship & Training Opportunities in Engineering, published annually by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.