Calling all students for a crash course in business

It's no longer enough to have a first class degree. To get a job you also need to hone your teamwork skills.

Sometimes advice for graduates about how to get a foot on the corporate ladder can be simple but effective. "When you're asked about what you read to get information about business, don't say The Sun," says Dave Chapman, to chortles from students crammed into a lecture hall at University College London (UCL).

He is one of three academics teaching 150 graduates on a three-day course the university has styled Enterprise Boot Camp, aimed at improving their employability when they are facing the toughest recruitment market Britain has seen for a generation.

According to projections, 30,000 of this summer's graduates will still be looking for work at the turn of the year. Foreseeing the current difficulties, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) announced that nearly £25m would be available to universities to help them get their graduates into work.

UCL got £2.5m, the biggest single handout, and the boot camp is at the sharp end of its activities – one of many programmes being run by universities in response to the recession.

"We have a highly competitive job market coming up and we need to encourage graduates to think as broadly as they can about their opportunities," says Timothy Barnes, the executive director of UCL Advances, the university's centre for entrepreneurship.

"By taking them through this programme we want to outline that the same fundamentals apply wherever a business idea comes from and wherever it's delivered. This is giving students, who have volunteered to do this in their holiday time, a chance to show that they are different from someone from, say Oxford or Nottingham, with the same degree."

Over the three days students receive lectures on topics such as finance and innovation and learn through exercises in teamwork and presentation. "The people who are on the course don't have much experience of the world of work, so it is taking those people who don't know where to start and showing them what the big ideas are," says Barnes.

"It's informing them about the concepts that you might see in the media. What are all those pages of numbers in The Financial Times and how do you read them? It's about knowing what a balance sheet is for when you see a set of company accounts and how people work in teams in businesses and how that's different from what they might have experienced in the past."

When it comes to getting them over the fear of presentations, material from an unexpected source is used – a bit of film from Dragons' Den when a guy freezes on screen. The message is that people in business want you to succeed because they want to do deals, so you shouldn't worry too much if you screw up sometimes.

Barnes says the students have as yet been shielded from the full effects of graduate unemployment.

"We're still talking about the people who have graduated this summer. They've not been out and found out just how hard it is."

Alexandria Furness's experience of the job market has not, however, been a pleasant one. After graduating this summer with a first-class degree in Design Management for Fashion Retail from Manchester University, a qualification that in other years would have seen her scooped up by an employer, she failed to get a job.

"I've found it very difficult going through the process," she says. "It's extremely competitive. I've had another rejection just this week. When you graduate all your friends and family ask you "what's next" and when you personally don't know it's really demoralising."

She has been taking part in Manchester Business School's (MBS) High Flyers programme, also funded by Hefce and aimed at improving graduate employment prospects.

While the organisers of UCL's boot camp emphasise that theirs is a whirlwind tour through the world of business, High Flyers is aimed at the cream of this summer's graduates and has a tough selection process.

Programme director Mohammed Djeddour says that only 70 were chosen out of 300 applications. All but two have either a First or a 2:1 degree.

"Many of them come from business, economics or accounting and there are some engineers as well, and though they have the theoretical background they don't have the commercial awareness and the skills that most employers are looking for today; soft skills, team work and communications. Employers are looking for people who have this commercial awareness and a real life perspective, not just theory and books."

"In the current circumstances, even having a first-class degree isn't good enough as these students haven't been able to find jobs four or five months after graduating. Traditionally, those students would get on a graduate trainee programme."

Other universities laying on similar programmes include Bournemouth, whose three-day Finishing School has its own way of getting students to shape up, says one of its organisers Jon Bowmer.

"On the first morning if they don't arrive by nine o'clock we lock them out. It's a form of tough love and gets them to raise their game."

But Sonja Stockton, the woman in charge of recruitment at PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the UK's biggest graduate employers, says that universities would be better off coming to business much earlier so that students are better prepared when they leave university.

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