In Sunderland, graduates are the business

Roger Trapp reports on an initiative to cross-fertilise commercial and academic expertise
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The Independent Online
In the North East, one of the Business Links has joined up with Sunderland University in an effort to get more graduates into small and medium-sized enterprises.

Business Link Sunderland is piloting the Catalyst for Growth project with the help of Washington-based holograms and holographic film manufacturer Applied Holographics, with two years' funding from the Department for Education and Employment.

The idea is that the company pays only half of a graduate's salary during a six-month placement, with the rest being funded through the scheme. In return, it gets access to the latest thinking and technical and personal skills, while the graduate gains the practical experience that employers are increasingly demanding. Indeed, the need for closer links between graduates and small and medium-sized enterprises is under discussion in the current debate about higher education.

Mollie Temple, pro-vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, says: "The development of SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] and the potential of this country's graduates are both crucial factors in the growth of the UK's economy and long-term wealth. Graduates can bring an extra dimension to a small company, with expert knowledge in many areas, [including] manufacturing and marketing, information technology and the environment."

She and colleagues at the university believe the programme has the potential to be highly effective in Sunderland and beyond. They devised it after discussions among themselves and with managers of small and medium-sized businesses in the area revealed that these companies would welcome the up-to-date skills that graduates could offer, preferably if they already had experience of work.

The first two graduates to join Applied Holographics are somewhat older than average - Raymond Robinson is a 47-year-old former Swan Hunter engineer and 50-year-old Brian Belshaw is a former British Coal electrician - and were selected because the company particularly wanted graduates with experience. But if the scheme is extended - as the organisers would like - there could be plenty of opportunities for younger people looking to make an impact on business.

In an effort to obtain the maximum benefit from the programme, each company is assigned a personal business adviser from the link, as well as a consultant with relevant commercial and industrial experience to act as mentor to both sides throughout the project.