Promotion? How old-fashioned

The concept of the fast-track career is changing to one of serial `opportunities'. Roger Trapp reports
So much has been written of late about the "end of work" that those about to graduate from university could be forgiven for thinking that they could be out of a job almost as soon as they have obtained one. The truth, however, is rather different - and a lot more complicated.

As a report published last week indicates, even with the growth of "outsourcing" and other trends, most of the workforce are likely to be employed in much the same way in 10 years' time as they are now. Moreover, it is arguable that those with better-than-average qualifications have greater opportunities than their predecessors now that the ranks of middle management have been thinned out.

What is changing, of course, is the level of qualifications considered out of the ordinary. Not so long ago, it seems, just having a degree from a reputable university put you in that bracket; now that needs to be combined with at least one of such attributes as a professional qualification or MBA, information technology expertise and a foreign language. The likes of "communication skills" and "people skills" are a given.

But for all these developments, companies are not rushing to abandon their old practices entirely. Research described by Cranfield School of Management's Noeleen Doherty at a seminar held by the Independent and the Association of Graduate Recruiters suggests that large companies accept the need to "attract and retain quality individuals to enhance their long- term competitive advantage" - even as the idea of jobs for life is disappearing.

"They need these people, they are the future," explains Ms Doherty, senior research officer at Cranfield's human resource research centre.

However, she and her team discovered that the traditional philosophy of the fast-track career is being challenged by changes in organisational structures and the prevailing concept of the career. The pressure for these moves is coming from two sources - external, as a result of the economic and competitive environment and the increased proportion of graduates in the workforce, and internal, via structural changes and reorganisations.

Among changes identified was a move towards organisations targeting specific universities. Nearly all the 20 organisations questioned still used the traditional milk round, but the volume of applications and concern about the overall quality are prompting many to look at recruiting more people from universities with which they already have close research links.

Second, graduates are increasingly expected to add value to the business from the day they arrive, with some companies actually operating "perform or perish" policies. Though senior executives are often aware of who the high-potential people are, they avoid differentiating them from other managers or referring to them as high fliers so that expectations are not raised unnecessarily.

Most companies offered graduate programmes lasting up to 24 months and two-thirds had a system of mentors, under which more senior managers help to "bring on" new recruits. However, few firms follow up induction and initial training with formal career development. Graduates are increasingly expected to manage their own careers.

Finally, the flatter organisational structures that have helped to create opportunities for faster progression have also reduced long-term job security. This is because of the absence of steady promotions, and the new reality is reflected in the different language being used, especially in publicity material, where "development" has replaced such words as "career", says Ms Doherty.

Like others before her, she has identified a "new deal" being developed for potential fast-track employees. Rather than a career, such people can expect a development opportunity.

"This research indicates a transformation of the career management and development of graduate employees," she says of the study that looked at such large recruiters as WH Smith and British Gas and was supported by the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

"They will increasingly be required to buy into quite a different offer on entry to employment. Problems begin to arise if the shift in the organisational philosophy is not clearly communicated to the graduate. This may cause the potential for unmet expectations."

However, it is not just the graduates who are at risk of losing out from such a change of approach. Just as voluntary redundancy schemes often lead to the "best and brightest" taking the money and running because they are confident of picking up a position elsewhere, so operators of the new deal face losing potentially key staff just when they are about to become useful.

As Ms Doherty says, "Graduates seeing the benefit of initial training as a stepping stone in their personal development may not stay with the company long enough for it to reap a return on investment."