Why age discrimination laws will have an impact on how employers recruit from universities

As of this month, it is illegal for employers to discriminate on the grounds of age. But before you stop reading (on the basis that this is an issue more likely to affect your mother or grandmother than you) consider this. It could be argued that graduate recruitment schemes discriminate against anyone who isn't in their early twenties. So will these traditional fast-track programmes become a thing of the past?

While they're unlikely to disappear altogether, Rebecca Clake, adviser to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says we can expect to see some major changes. Many employers are renaming their schemes, for example, while others are opening them up to non-graduates. Some are doing lots more besides, all with the aim of avoiding falling foul of the new law.

"The biggest alteration that graduate recruiters will have to make is axing age limits," says Clake. The latest CIPD research found that 38 per cent of graduate schemes had age restrictions; it has yet to be seen if employers have acted quickly enough to rectify the situation in time for the new law.

Also coming to an abrupt end will be graduate recruitment literature that's showered with pictures of young people doing things like pot-holing, she says. "Employers won't have to ditch themes like pot-holing, but they will have to think about showing a wider age range of people doing it, or else risk being accused of indirectly discriminating against older people," says Clake. "After all, the pictures could imply that only younger people are welcome."

All this is great news for mature graduates, or for people who graduated some time ago, she believes. "No longer will employers be able to exclude graduates who don't fit the stereotype of a 21-year-old."

Rachel Krys, spokeswoman for the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), adds that some recruiters are re-thinking whether they should insist on graduates being willing to be mobile - either nationally or internationally. "This could also be seen to indirectly discriminate against older people, who are more likely to be settled in one location, with perhaps a mortgage, children at school and partner in a job," she explains. "Some of our member companies have already decided to end this requirement, on those very grounds."

Other companies have come to the conclusion that it will be too risky - under the new law - to ask for a certain number of Ucas points or to insist on graduates who studied full-time for their degree. Ucas points didn't exist until recently, so older people may not know what they are, and part-time courses traditionally attract a higher number of mature students, explains Krys.

"There is even the suggestion that employers who only look for graduates in a handful of universities - particularly Oxbridge and the red brick ones - may be discriminating on the grounds of age because these institutions tend to have fewer mature students," she says.

Even those employers who target a wider range of institutions now have to be careful about restricting their recruitment processes to the university milk round, as the majority of students who attend these events are young graduates. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) recommends that employers enhance any milk round programme with a broader recruitment strategy, using other avenues to capture a wider pool of applicants of differing ages.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs has responded to the forthcoming age legislation by renaming its scheme the "analyst" and "associate" development programmes, rather than mentioning the term graduate. "When we looked at our programmes, we realised that although there was no direct discrimination, we were directing graduates down one path and everyone else down another. By removing the term graduate, we have opened up the scheme to people of all ages - whether they graduated recently or many years ago," says Stephen Golden, executive director in the office of global leadership and diversity.

Goldman Sachs has also been busy educating all those involved in recruitment on the benefits of age diversity. "We wanted to make sure that all our staff avoid any unintentional discrimination, for example by using certain words when writing job advertisements," he says.

Indeed, employers will have to be very careful not to allow covert discrimination to creep into marketing copy. For example, if you ask for someone "dynamic" or "vibrant", it has implications around age.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the largest graduate recruiter in the UK, is also focusing on training all those involved in graduate recruitment. "Because we have made attempts to be age-neutral for a couple of years now, our biggest challenge will not be adapting the graduate recruitment scheme itself, but ensuring that all our people who are involved in the selection process don't make any inadvertent assumptions around age," says Sarah Churchman, who heads up student recruitment and diversity. "To this end, we have adapted the training we give our interviewers to include a section on age and for those already trained up, we'll be providing additional guidance."

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police is one of a growing number of organisations that has gone down the route of not differentiating between graduates and non-graduates in its fast-track training scheme. Its High Potential Development scheme is open to anyone who believes they have what it takes to go far within the police force - whether a graduate, a current police officer, a career changer or anything else. Those who get through get access to training and career development opportunities you find elsewhere in the police service.

Among those who are relieved that the new law won't force employers to quit their graduate recruitment schemes is Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR). "We don't have enough high quality training programmes for graduates as it is, so we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if the legislation encouraged all employers to throw in the towel," he says.

He hopes that graduate recruiters see the legislation as an opportunity to embrace age as a diversity issue alongside others like gender and ethnicity. "If you look at websites and brochures at the moment, you could be forgiven for getting the impression that the focus is on very young, fresh entrants to the labour market, and clearly that has to change. Application forms can give this impression too - for instance as a result of questions about what societies you belonged to at university."

Once graduate employers have made their attempts to become age-neutral, Gilleard would like to see them monitoring the outcomes. "They'll need to look at whether they get more applicants over a certain age and whether these older applicants are getting through the selection process. In addition, they'll need to look at whether the ones that are recruited stay in the organisation or if they leave quicker than others. If the answers to any of these questions are negative, the organisation should look at why. This will show their efforts are more than just lip-service."

He also believes that older graduates need to do more to help themselves in the recruitment process. "Mature graduates often understate what they can bring to the table," he says. "I remember one person who came up to me at a recruitment fair and said she had a first class honours degree in English, but it wasn't getting her anywhere. I said, 'Convince me why I should employ you,' to which she responded with a short description of the skills gained at university. It transpired she had been a nursing sister before university, yet she hadn't thought about mentioning the very transferable skills gained during that time that would surely help her persuade employers to take her on."

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