If your business competes on brainpower, it pays to think laterally about where to find the brightest minds. Even so, when Chris Parsons, a partner at City of London law firm Herbert Smith, flew to Australia to set up an internship scheme with the Universities of New South Wales and Sydney, his colleagues questioned the pay-back. Until, that is, the interns arrived.

“We were targeting the very best and these were, clearly, exceptionally bright individuals,” says Mr Parsons of the seven aspirant lawyers, all of whom have been offered traineeships.

Herbert Smith’s decision to go global in its quest for excellence is symptomatic of an imperative driving elite employers in the UK to behave like football talent scouts. The background is the inability of Britain’s universities to supply enough first-rate graduates to keep pace with the clamour for brains.

“Demand has expanded,” says Keith Dugdale, head of recruitment at accountancy firm KPMG, which hires 1,000 graduates a year, “but the absolute amount of top talent has remained static.”

For big employers such as KPMG, which trawls in eastern European business schools such as the Warsaw School of Economics, the deficit in domestic talent forces a choice: find additional pools to fish in or allow the calibre of entrants to drop. For firms with smaller intakes, such as lawyers and consultancies, the contest is not so much a numbers game as a dogfight over future stars.

“There are always a few exceptional partners who attract a disproportionate amount of work,” Mr Parsons says. “If you can bring in a few really brilliant individuals, the investment soon pays back.”

Just as football clubs deploy scouts to sign up schoolboy players, businesses are investing in “early identification strategies” to siphon off university students who show unusual promise. Internships that propel the most sought-after candidates into a corporate embrace before they experience the annual recruitment season are popular.

Ian Walsh, head of university recruiting at Boston Consulting Group, London, says: “More often than not an intern will accept an offer. It’s a chance for us to get really talented people into the system early on.”

The replacement of work experience by structured internships – for which the selection is as rigorous as for graduate traineeships – speaks volumes about the lengths to which employers are prepared to go to recruit the right people. It also shows how, in an attempt to build a pipeline of graduate talent, employers are professionalising the network of contacts that link them to educators.

One innovator is the professional services firm PwC, which runs a business accounting and finance degree in partnership with Newcastle University and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. An important feature of the collaboration is that PwC has a say in which applicants are admitted to the course. By the time they graduate, the students will have completed several placements with PwC and the expectation is that nearly all will become employees.

Academic activities are not the only side of university life that employers are colonising. A growing number, including Deloitte, Herbert Smith and Unilever, hire undergraduates as “student campus managers” to promote their reputation by organising company events on campus and to act as grassroots talent spotters.

It is not only elite establishments that today’s recruiters would benefit from targeting. Mr Parsons points out that while the most prestigious universities have the highest concentrations of high-flying candidates, virtually every institution boasts one or two star performers.

To tap this neglected reservoir, he says, his firm is funding prizes to flush out exceptionally able students studying at establishments that were off its radar until recently.

Creating a socially diverse talent base without lowering the hurdles is a challenge that taxes many City employers, particularly since the introduction of tuition fees has increased the number of bright students who choose a university near the parental home to save money.

In response to these pressures, employers have begun to work with enterprises that specialise in opening doors for excluded groups. One is Target Chances, an initiative set up by GTI, the graduate careers publisher, which runs skills sessions and networking events to help graduates from groups that are under-represented in the workplace, in their applications to top employers.

Another is Pure Potential, which encourages talented pupils in disadvantaged inner-city schools to tap sources of student finance so they can study at leading universities as a prelude to pursuing blue-chip careers.

Charlotte Hart, graduate recruitment adviser at Linklaters says: “It is important to recognise that a growing number of students, for economic reasons, are forced to study close to home. That isn’t any reflection on their academic ability nor is it a reflection of their future potential.”

As the scramble to sign up tomorrow’s hotshot corporate leaders intensifies, several recruiters are extending their tentacles into secondary education. Among them is Deloitte, which offers a “scholars programme” that courts 72 rising stars a year before they sit A-Levels with a battery of inducements, including travel bursaries, placements and sponsorship through university.

Seen by the firm as a major talent attractor – “We hope that around 75 per cent of the scholars will one day join us,” says Sarah Shillingford, graduate recruitment partner – the scholars programme, nevertheless, suffers from one limitation: it is easy to copy.

Back at Herbert Smith, Mr Parsons is planning another trip, this time to India’s law schools. Although hopeful of repeating his Australian success, he reserves judgment on the outcome. “A number of firms have been tapping into India of late. It will be interesting to see, once we get there, what the talent pool is like,” he says.

Often likened to a military struggle, the war for talent gives every sign of spiralling into an arms race.

Ambassadors fly company flag

“A key challenge in graduate recruitment is to ensure that the best people apply to you,” says Chris Parsons, of the law firm Herbert Smith. So, like many others, the firm advertises at universities for “student campus managers” to help build its reputation.

Known as “ambassadors” by some companies, they steer high-flying undergraduates towards would-be employers and initiate and organise events, such as dinners and business games, to create awareness of the employer among target undergraduates.

“Getting an inside track can make a huge difference to student turnout at recruitment events,” says Sarah Shillingford, of the accountancy firm Deloitte, who highlights the importance of choosing popular venues and avoiding clashes with sports fixtures or essay deadlines.

Another benefit of ambassadors is being able to supplement academic references from tutors with a grassroots view of how potential recruits come across to their peers.

The ambassador schemes are also popular with students – when a would-be recruit recommended by an ambassador accepts a place with Deloitte, the recommender receives a referral bonus of £1,500, ($2,900).

But the prospect of extra cash is not the only incentive that motivates students to fulfil this role, says Shomit Dey, a Deloitte ambassador in his second year at Cambridge University. As important are the employability benefits that flow from working with a blue-chip business. “It’s definitely a CV booster to say that you have come up with recruitment ideas for a firm and run events on their behalf,” he says.

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