January 7, 2013 5:19 pm

Rethink required on graduate training

Recruitment and development of the best university students are crucial even in a downturn

It’s 25 years, almost to the day, since I started at the Financial Times. “One tip,” confided a more experienced colleague, early on: “Don’t stay more than five years, or you’ll be here for ever.”

The miracle, however, is not that I’m still here but that the graduate training programme is – alongside much larger versions operated by bigger companies, from Accenture to Zurich Insurance.

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Andrew Hill

Such programmes face many threats, however. Companies face accusations that they hire graduate trainees as cheap labour. But the opposite risk worries boardrooms more: that such programmes are a costly investment in all-too-mobile assets. According to one more recent FT trainee, his contemporaries in other schemes regard their apprenticeship with “utter cynicism”, as a way of gaining the imprimatur of, say, a Big Four accountancy firm, before moving on to something trendier. Those who do stay risk becoming the most insular followers of a restrictive management culture – a charge laid against the BBC in a recent review of the missteps that eventually triggered the departure of the broadcaster’s director-general George Entwistle, himself a BBC lifer and former graduate trainee.

When companies are shedding experienced employees, some chief executives may feel it is perverse to go on sucking in ingénues, who think they know everything but in fact can’t locate the stationery cupboard, let alone the corporate strategy. Demand for jobs far exceeds supply and popular employers can use technological tools to attract and screen the best candidates, including proven experts. So why bother applying the cumbersome filter of an official scheme and wasting time and money on a formal training process for novices?

The continuity of some schemes has indeed fluctuated through the financial crisis. In 2009, in the middle of a redundancy programme, UK telecoms company BT suspended some of its campus recruitment to concentrate instead on redeployment of trained staff to the few vacancies available. Goldman Sachs won’t run a formal two-year programme for would-be analysts in investment banking and investment management from this year; it has opted instead to employ college graduates full time on permanent contracts. (The FT took a break from its scheme in 2012, having hired more graduates than usual in previous years, and restarts this year.)

But graduate recruitment and training should be a priority, even in a downturn. It may be unfeasible to expect career-long loyalty from the latest intake, but employers’ investment in graduates will be repaid later. A few may go on to lead the company – as the current chief executives of Munich Re and Barclays have, among others. The rest, even if they leave, could form a diaspora of sympathetic customers and suppliers. There is a reason big graduate recruiters such as Procter & Gamble and McKinsey cultivate alumni networks.

Meanwhile, what looks like inexperience should be read as fresh thinking. Younger staff may hold the key to technological change and innovation. Phil Clarke, chief executive of Tesco (and another former trainee), has a 25-year-old staff member in his office, to provide him with a youthful perspective.

It is, however, no longer realistic to expect these advantages to spring from traditional programmes of general management training – what Gordon Chesterman, director of Cambridge university’s career service calls “Cook’s tours” of different departments. In line with the more specialised nature of business, companies are seeking out recruits with affinity for specialist areas and tailoring programmes to attract promising candidates who have, in Mr Chesterman’s words, been “learning about logistics from the age of 12”. Universities also find companies are fishing for younger candidates, hooking students who have proved themselves on company internships before their final year.

One further element is essential. Companies that wish to attract and retain skilled staff must now apply the same flexible thinking and close attention they focus on recent graduates to employees entering the last quarter-century of their careers. I’ll be surprised if I’m still working here in my 70s, despite my colleague’s 1988 forecast. But I’ll almost certainly be working somewhere and I hope some future employer will be as committed to training me in my 50s and 60s – and I as committed to being trained – as the FT was when I joined it, aged 23.

andrew.hill@ft.com

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