Magazine article Management Today

University Challenge

Magazine article Management Today

University Challenge

Article excerpt

Between 90-100 graduates apply for each job. That still doesn't make it any easier to hire the right ones.

The higher education landscape has changed markedly since 1992, when the old polytechnics were transformed into universities. For employers, finding the best graduates has become a task of needle-in-haystack proportions. Now with the introduction of tuition fees, the struggle to attract and retain looks set to intensify. A 1997 survey of the largest firms, commissioned by the Guardian from recruitment specialist Park Human Resources, shows that nearly half are devising remuneration packages incorporating so-called golden hellos to help graduates pay off their loans.

According to the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) Annual Graduate Review 1996-1997, there are now around 1.5 million students, over 50% more than in 1988-89. With graduate recruitment only now regaining the levels of the late '80s, there are an estimated 90-100 applications for each vacancy. Yet 64% of employers (as against 38% last year) in the Guardian-backed survey found increasing difficulty recruiting graduates of the right calibre.

There are basically two types of graduate companies are looking for. There are the specialists in areas such as engineering, IT or textile design, where a good technical degree is essential. Then there are generalists for whom degree subject matters little. Away from the fast-track management development programmes at companies like ICI, Shell and Unilever, the class of degree isn't that critical for the many employers who are looking for well-rounded candidates. In a survey conducted by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), the skills most highly valued were motivation and enthusiasm, inter-personal skills, teamworking, flexibility and adaptability, and oral communication, plus the traditional ones of initiative, proactivity and problem-solving.

Part of the difficulty for recruiters lies in the standards imbalance between the different institutions. Including the 41 former polytechnics, there are now over 100 universities - with the result that graduates are no longer an elite. There is much debate about whether an American-style Ivy League has become established. Certainly, says Roly Cockman, chief executive of the AGR, 'it exists in most people's minds'. High Fliers Research publishes Graduate Careers, an annual survey of 12,000 students from 24 leading universities. Survey director Martin Birchall observes: 'There is a very definite pecking order among universities and there are no new universities at the top of it. It all comes down to academic entry requirements. Imperial College, for example, will want one or two As at A level, while the University of East London may accept one D and one E. That's not to say there are not good students at the former polytechnics but it makes it difficult for companies to compare standards between institutions.'

So how do companies find the best graduates? Marketing literature, careers fairs and adverts in graduate job directories still play a part, but the real investment of time and resources goes into targeted activity at chosen institutions based on a tight specification of what's required. Time was when blue chips used to haul a milk-round presentation roadshow around the country each autumn. By Christmas, applications were in and, after on-campus interviews, the best candidates were smartly snapped up. But the milk round no longer has the prominence it once had. Though it is still used, many companies have replaced it with regional interviewing at centres covering a number of universities. Mars, for example, sends its literature to every university in the UK, and accepts applications from all, but company presentations are by invitation only (based on completed application forms) at city-centre locations.

The timing has changed, too, with the gradual trend from a three-term to two-semester system and module-based courses. …

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