Staff tailor-made for the small business

A pioneering scheme on Merseyside is building bridges between graduates and local firms. Liz Heron reports

While the graduate employment market across most of Britain languishes in depression, an upsurge of opportunities is under way on Merseyside. Some 500 jobs for graduates have been created in the past two years and hundreds more are in the pipeline in a region better known for its high unemployment and hotspots of social deprivation.

The jobs are the result of an innovative scheme that prepares graduates for work in a small- or medium-sized enterprise (SME) in the region through a tailor-made training and placement programme. More than 1,000 graduates have been through Graduates into Employment and more than 80 per cent have obtained a full-time job within six months of completing the programme. The vast majority of these are in small- and medium-sized firms with no history of recruiting graduates.

The scheme is led by a consortium comprising Liverpool City Council, Merseyside Training and Enterprise Council and the city's three higher education institutions. It is funded by a variety of sources, including the Department of Employment and the European Commission. Courses and place- ments are mounted by the Merseyside Innovation Centre (MIC), a non-profit training and business advice service.

Companies pay £60 to £80 a week to take part and the programme is free to graduates, who may claim state benefits throughout. Those who have been unemployed for more than six months can take the course full-time over six weeks under the Department of Employment's Training for Work scheme, which adds £10 to a claimant's weekly benefit. Others take it part-time over 10 weeks.

The course sharpens up graduates' career aims and job search technique and gives them key skills needed by small businesses, including information technology, marketing, sales, quality assurance and interpersonal skills. Candidates are given psychometric tests, a skills audit and careers counselling, and the information gleaned is used to find them a range of suitable company placements.

Dr Peter Hawkins, the programme's development officer, says: "We encourage graduates not just to look at job functions but also to look at particular jobs sectors. And we provide information about growth areas in the region."

Liz Walmsley, 22, who graduated from Durham University last year, has just finished the induction course and is applying for placement. "The course was exactly what I needed," she says. "Having done a history degree, I had no business awareness, no computer skills, and I wasn't focused on what I wanted to do. What I found most beneficial was the personal profiles we developed to identify the areas we could be good at. My applications strategy has also improved."

During the six-month placement graduates undertake a project that has been designed with the small firm to meet a particular business need. Merseyside Innovation Centre (MIC) has three full-time officers contacting businesses in the region, explaining the programme, inviting them to take part and helping them to devise projects.

Fiona Davidson, programme administrator, says: "We're looking for projects that companies wouldn't be able to do without the graduate. And we encourage graduates to make an identifiable contribution to the organisation, such as laying in a new computer software or introducing a new personnel policy."

All graduates are given personal mentors, who help them to find their way around their companies, and graduate advisers from MIC visit during the first month of the placement. Graduates also attend monthly call-back days at MIC, where they discuss any problems and may get extra skills training.

Williams, Barber & Bird, a public relations firm that previously recruited experienced staff only, has hosted four placements under the programme and recruited all four graduates. Hillary Berg, PR director, says: "It's an economical approach to training, and we are developing a policy of growing our own staff. We recruit people from within the industry for account manager level, but for more junior posts we will continue to take graduates through the programme and put them alongside the appropriate manager to be trained."

Four graduates apply for every place on the programme. This year the consortium is planning major expansion, starting with four additional courses. It is bidding for a slice of the European Commission's Objective One funding, for which Merseyside qualified last year by having a GDP lower than 75 per cent of the European Union average.

"We're hoping to bring in £1m to £2m from Objective One and the Department of Employment over the next three years," Dr Hawkins says. A further £400,000 for a learning resource centre, with extra training materials and information on SMEs for graduates on the programme, has already been secured.

Dr Hawkins expects to see similar programmes spring up around Britain. "The CBI, the Policy Studies Institute, the Engineering Council and the Small Firms Lead Body have all predicted that growth is going to be in SMEs," he says.

The model could be adapted to local circumstances and the key is for different agencies in a region to collaborate and pool their resources. "You have to be continually looking around for new pots of money," Dr Hawkins says.

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