Graduate recruits – trainees or the finished article?

Robin Hoyle
Senior Consultant
Learnworks Ltd
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Last week, the Association for Graduate recruiters (AGR) released their annual development survey. As reported in school and university bashing newspapers the main focus of the report was, apparently,  about how young people joining the workforce in graduate programmes lack team working, problem-solving and other so-called soft-skills when they start work.

Employers are, if media reports are to be believed, calling for a radical overhaul of various curricula to ensure that new graduates are more employment ready.

As has become invariably the case, if one reads the actual report, a different picture emerges. Three transformative trends are highlighted:

  1. Gaps in soft skills exist with just below half thinking that graduates lack some key skills when first hired. However, employers are pro-active in bridging these gaps and are doing so. In fact, for the majority of these skills, most employers think they are best gained outside University and that the skills gap can be closed in less than 12 months.
  2. Support after a graduate development programme is more common and more important. Rather than assuming that a two-year graduate training programme is sufficient to build a lifetime of valuable skills, further support to assist these new workers in maximising their potential are increasingly put in place, including coaching to assist the transition into junior management roles.
  3. Integration of manager engagement into graduate development programmes is now a feature for over 80% of those firms responding to the survey. In other words, the idea that developing a graduate can happen outside the day to day activity is being laid to rest. Team leaders are expected, and trained, to play an active role in on-the-job development activities.

These relatively positive messages from the research are somewhat at odds with the message in the media. As usual a story featuring education, employment and the young was looking to highlight inadequacies and apportion responsibility for any shortcomings.

I am not naïve enough to think that a nuanced and quite complex news story about the minutiae of graduate development schemes would gain much coverage on the BBC and in the Daily Mail, the Scotsman and the Financial Times. I can only assume that the juicy bits sent out in the press release were designed to maximise coverage of the AGR’s endeavours. If that had to be at the expense of a free and fair representation of the survey’s findings – so be it.

I happen to think in our post-truth world this is more than a little concerning.

Not only does it focus attention on the shortcomings of schools and universities, it avoids the potential issues in graduate schemes themselves. The detailed report of the survey finds that only 34% of companies measure the impact of training programmes.

If graduate recruits can’t learn continuously, independently and capably, then there seems no reason to hire people simply because they have a degree.

Only 40% seek to measure return on investment from the not inconsiderable investment in graduate programmes.

To place this into some kind of context a few years ago I was involved in a graduate recruitment programme for one of my clients.  They estimated that the average investment per graduate was in the region of £200,000 once all the costs of salaries, international experience and set up costs were taken into account. 

This may have been an extremely expensive example, but my experience of graduate development programmes is that they don’t come cheap.  For almost two-thirds of companies with such programmes to have no ROI measurement in place seems strange at best.

That said, one section of the report suggests that there is a noticeable down-turn in the amount of ‘get-up-and-go’ demonstrated by graduate recruits.  How this is quantified is not specified. (On average, 24% of graduates leave the developing organisation during or immediately after their graduate scheme. Presumably some find the only way of demonstrating get-up-and-go is to get-up -and-leave!)

The AGR have identified 9 key skills which graduates need and against each one the report identifies gaps in graduate hires’ competence in these areas. 

In managing up, dealing with conflict, negotiating and commercial awareness, more than 80% of graduates are thought to be deficient.

Problem solving, interpersonal skills and team working fare better with over 60% of graduates being proficient in these areas (despite these being the specific skills singled out as absent in press reports.)

There may be a clear rationale for this mismatch of ability and employer expectations.

If you look on a university undergraduate recruitment page you will find lots of encouragement to choose a course at one university rather than another. In a commercialised education world, where undergrads are paying for their learning, it is a hard sell.

The problem, however, is the students are not being promised £9000 per year’s worth of education. They are being sold a qualification.

In managing up, dealing with conflict, negotiating and commercial awareness, more than 80% of graduates are thought to be deficient.

Where can a <insert name here> university degree take you, rather than where can a university education take you. It seems to me to be self-evident that if the primary focus of a university is to deliver qualifications at all costs, rather than to deliver a solid education which equips people for whatever the future holds, then we will continue to have a disconnect between what graduates learn and what they may need.

I remember being an undergraduate student...

I sat in a nervous and silent group of other 18 and 19 year olds when an austere and serious professor entered our tutorial room.  “Welcome to University” he intoned.  “Over the course of the next three years you will be taught to read and write to degree level.”

This stuck with me. It was the clearest indication that this was different from school.  We were there to develop our academic, reasoning and writing skills.  What we learned was less important that that we learned how to learn.  These are the skills employers should look for in their graduate recruits. 

But this report seems to suggest that employers are expecting ‘employable units’ to be the product of a university education rather than independent learners.

Organisations should hire graduates not because they are the finished article, but because they have shown a propensity to learn new things.

Despite setting up graduate training schemes (the clue’s in the title, guys) employers seem to place insufficient emphasis on individuals who aware of their own skills, their limitations and who are hungry for the next development opportunity.

If graduate recruits can’t learn continuously, independently and capably, then there seems no reason to hire people simply because they have a degree.

Organisations should hire graduates not because they are the finished article, but because they have shown a propensity to learn new things and build new knowledge and skills.

The specific technical and people skills required to work within the organisation should be a joint responsibility of the organisation and the people it employs.  Clarity about the skills required and programmes which enable skilled learners to demonstrate their capability is what a graduate scheme should deliver.

About Robin Hoyle

Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development. He has a long track record of strategic L&D leadership and materials development and design - working for a wide range of organisations in private, public and voluntary sectors in the UK and throughout the world.

He is currently working as Head of Learning Innovation for global sales training company, Huthwaite International.

He chairs the World of Learning Conference and speaks at many events. He is regularly published as a writer and commentator on training related issues. His book, Complete Training - from recruitment to retirement, is published by Kogan Page and can be ordered here. His most recent book: Informal Learning in Organizations: how to create a continuous learning culture was published by Kogan Page in September 2015 and is available from all good retailers.


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