A year ago, Paul Foley, 22, was sitting in a classroom at Manchester Metropolitan University, studying for a business degree. Last week, he was in a northern warehouse, happily holding one end of a tape measure. He was getting what every graduate desperately needs – hands-on experience.
"Because firms require two years' experience, it's very hard to get past the front door," he says. "Employers are cherry-picking, and the market is flooded with last year's graduates."
On the other end of the tape was Foley's mentor, Stephan Matykiewicz, from Harrogate, an independent consultant. He was there to advise one of his clients, an automobile parts factory, on how to improve their stock control.
"The firm makes hundreds of lines," says Foley. "Only a few of them move in their thousands each year, but by law the company has to keep the other parts for a long time. So it's a question of identifying the fast-movers and having them in a central location. We had to find out what parts were where and how much space they took. We measured and cross-referenced the whole warehouse."
Foley is one of six people selected for a new postgraduate scheme being tested in Yorkshire and Humberside by the Initiatives in Business Development group. The IBD began eight years ago as an umbrella body for solo consultants specialising in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It has 280 active members supporting more than 2,000 businesses.
Individual consultants tend to be specialists, says Kevin Jackson, the organisation's director, but a typical SME wants someone who can help with all aspects of business. "So an IBD member starts by reviewing the whole company. If they've got a problem with health and safety, we can bring in the local specialist in that. We don't write long reports. We go in, roll our sleeves up and help."
To give its members the chance to gain some accreditation, the IBD linked up with the University of Chester and introduced the Professional Certificate in Business Advice (or PCBA), which worked well.
"The next step was to extend that to graduates wanting to move into consultancy," Jackson explains. "We employ them, and they go out with clients under the guidance of an experienced consultant."
The programme starts with a classroom induction where the basics of consultancy are taught. After that comes the practical element. Students are required to work, alongside a mentor, with at least six clients, analysing business needs and proposing solutions. They also have to submit learning portfolios and a 4,000-word case study.
The course costs £1,000, repayable on successful completion. The students, some of whom also have part-time jobs, can earn extra money en route, by finding new clients, for example.
"We started in Yorkshire and Humberside because we've got a strong presence there," says Jackson. "And the reaction was unbelievable. We were staggered at the quality and quantity of people coming out of university who, through no fault of their own, couldn't find the right position. Time and again, it came back to how much experience they had got. We asked them what their priorities were and it was all about experience, not money. This way, when they go for jobs next time they can say they helped one company with their human resources, another one raise finance, and so on."
The course is monitored, and mentors have to submit monthly reports on the student's activities. The maximum period is a year, but the course can be completed sooner.
Charlotte Goodbody, 22, from Dereham, Norfolk, started in January and hopes to finish by June. Goodbody, who read management at the University of Sheffield, says: "I've been spending the last month trying to find new clients. I put together a list of local companies and sent out letters inviting them to sign up for a free business health check. I'll be following that up with phone calls.
"I don't have any marketing experience so I went with another trainee this week to practise telesales techniques at one of his mentor's clients."
Another student, Michael Lodge, 24, from Dagenham, Essex, studied leisure management at Teesside University and graduated last summer. "At university, I took business planning and management consulting modules and thoroughly enjoyed them, so this tied in well," he says.
Last week, he was shadowing his mentor at a software company. "The firm is relocating, and the managing directors are worried about people resigning," Lodge says. "So my mentor was briefing the departmental managers, showing them how to outline the benefits of change to their staff. He talked about communication issues as well. Everything he was teaching I'd studied at university, but it's different when you see it in real life. I feel lucky to be doing this. Eventually I'd like to become an adviser."
The next group of graduates starts on 22 March, and eventually the IBD hopes to roll the scheme out nationwide. It brings some advantages, after all, for its own members, some of whom have had a tough time during the recession.
Matykiewicz has been an independent consultant for about 10 years, after a varied corporate career. "Standard consultancy activity can be completely new to a young graduate," he says. "It might be dealing with a client who's extremely busy and can't give you enough of his time. Maybe it's a complex problem, so you have a lot of investigative work to do. Or it could be something simple, but masked by other things."
So, was Foley useful in the warehouse? "Yes. If you're trying to measure something 15ft long, it's extremely helpful to have someone on the other end of the tape. Also, because he studied manufacturing for his university course, he's familiar with the terminology and the technology we use.
"So you don't have to explain too much. You say: 'You know the theory. Well, this is how it works'."
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