Filling in the blanks

Big companies are taking steps to teach new recruits about business. Steve McCormack reports

It's well known that leading city law firms, management consultants and blue-chip companies receive thousands of applicants for their annual graduate training schemes. The word has got around campuses that these employers, in exchange for hard work and intellectual sharpness, will offer exciting careers and large salaries.

It's well known that leading city law firms, management consultants and blue-chip companies receive thousands of applicants for their annual graduate training schemes. The word has got around campuses that these employers, in exchange for hard work and intellectual sharpness, will offer exciting careers and large salaries.

You'd think, then, that most of these top-drawer employers would find it easy to fill their annual intakes, by choosing the very best from a large pool of well-qualified, well-rounded and highly suitable applicants.

Well, no. Despite the fact that there's no shortage of academically razor-sharp, potential recruits - heading for very good degrees from first division universities - a remarkable number of these young people exhibit surprising weaknesses in areas outside their university experience.

Specifically, when interview panels throw a question across the table, inviting the applicant to demonstrate what he or she knows about the world of business and commerce, there's often an embarrassing silence.

It's not that these soon-to-be graduates can't dissect the intricacies of the Stock Exchange, or recite the latest changes to company taxation to emerge from the Chancellor's red boxes. The level of ignorance is much more basic than that. Many can't even trawl up the name of a single company that's been in the news for any reason at all, or mention one Government policy that might have an impact in the commercial world.

"A lot of them are completely flummoxed," explains Michael Hunting, graduate recruitment director at Eversheds, the City law firm which has difficulty filling 90 graduate training places a year from about 4,000 applicants. "They just look at you blankly.

They are applying to become business lawyers," he goes on, "but it's staggering that they appear not to listen to the news or read the quality press."

This dearth of knowledge is despite Eversheds dropping broad hints, at university careers fairs, and in information about graduate recruitment on the company website, that applicants should be able to demonstrate commercial awareness. Since these hints appear increasingly to fall on deaf ears, Eversheds decided to educate future waves of undergraduate applicants by running a training day for first-year students, with the aim of providing an opportunity for them to learn about commercial awareness first hand.

The event, called the Big Deal, took place earlier this month at Eversheds' London office. Forty-eight students doing law and non-law degrees at a variety of universities took part in a simulated business exercise. Working in teams of four, each alongside a qualified Eversheds lawyer, they had to rebrand an imaginary car-manufacturing business, and create a strategy to supply vehicles to the fast-growing Chinese market. Elements of the exercise included negotiating a joint venture with a Chinese car-maker, and securing finance from a Western bank and permission from Chinese regulators. The final stage involved announcing the venture to the international media in a press conference.

One of the key organisers of the day was Jon Gill, who is among Eversheds current crop of trainee lawyers.

"Commercial awareness is just not taught on the stereotypical law degree," he says. And nor, he argues, can much value be gained from PowerPoint demonstrations at careers fairs. That's why Eversheds decided to lay on a practical training day and aim it at first-year students, well before they make firm career moves.

It seems to have worked. Alexis Alexander, a first-year at Oxford University, said the day was an unforgettable experience. "I have learnt more from today than from a lifetime's worth of education," she says.

The Eversheds initiative has been applauded at the Association of Graduate Recruiters, where Carl Gilleard, the chief executive, frequently hears from employers about the paucity of basic commercial knowledge displayed by many applicants.

"Candidates often haven't even gone to the trouble of finding anything out about companies they're applying to," he explains, "and businesses in the finance sector often tell me that applicants, when interviewed on the phone, can't name one competitor of their targeted firm."

This is particularly surprising in today's job market, given that the supply of graduates is exceeding the number of graduate jobs.

The Big Four accounting and consultancy firm, Deloittes, has also spotted this weakness in its applicant pool. "It's probably one of the more common areas where people fall down in the interview process," says Sarah Shillingford, a graduate recruitment partner.

Like Eversheds, Deloittes is trying to rectify this by targeting first-years at university, 40 of whom recently attended a two-day residential programme, entitled Professional Services Uncovered. The sessions covered commercial awareness, the application form, interview skills and business games.

The thinking at Deloitte is that, if an English or history student realises in the final term of the final year that accountancy and consulting is something open and attractive to them, it is probably too late to be able to inform themselves of the basics of commercial practice, to help them with the application procedure. Starting that education process much earlier is beneficial for both students, and for the big firms, of course, who are competing with one another for the signatures of the brightest graduates of each year group.

"We're broadening the pool of people we can recruit from," says Shillingford, "and starting at an early stage."

It seems most graduates recognise that commercial awareness is one of their weakest suits. In a recent survey of more than 6,000 final-year students by Hobsons, the student careers advice organisation, only 34 per cent thought they had good skills in commercial awareness.

But, continues Shillingford, it is not difficult to acquire enough knowledge to be able to answer the business-related questions at interview reasonably convincingly.

Reading the business pages in the papers and websites, and watching the business news on television are among the fairly basic actions that she advises taking.

"We're just expecting them to have sufficient knowledge to back up the claim on the application form that they have an interest in the business world," she reasons.

Put like that, it certainly doesn't sound like rocket science.

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