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Thomas Koprowicz first learnt about the BHP Billiton Foundations for Graduates Programme while working during his university break at the Anglo-Australian miner’s nickel refinery in Kwinana, south of Perth.

The Western Australian engineering student decided to apply and was one of 200 Australian graduates – out of 6,500 who apply annually – to embark on the two-year programme in 2009.

Now an area process engineer at BHP’s Nickel West smelter in the remote mining town of Kalgoorlie, Mr Koprowicz was motivated to enrol by the “proven track record” of nurturing graduates for leadership.

“My manager came off the programme and is now a superintendent. And just recently I learnt that the general manager of our site used to be a graduate engineer.”

Mr Koprowicz is one of about 1,300 graduates worldwide to have completed the course since its launch in July, 2007. Recently named the best in Australia – for the third consecutive year – by the Australian Associate of Graduate Employers, the programme is run from Melbourne, Johannesburg and Santiago, Chile by a consortium of institutions led by Melbourne Business School (MBS).

This year, as soaring commodity prices fuel further success in the sector, so attracting more graduates, BHP intends to increase its Australia intake to 300.

Kim Westwood, BHP graduate resourcing and development manager, says the programme has played “a huge role in terms of our ability to market to graduates”.

“We have done research on what are the three key things a graduate will consider when they are wanting to join an organisation. It comes down to what they have heard about the programme, our reputation and the career opportunities we provide.”

Previous BHP graduate schemes she says, did not offer an integrated induction. “I think it would be fair to say that it wasn’t taken seriously by graduates or by the organisation.”

To determine how a programme could inspire graduates to build a career with BHP and fast track them for leadership roles, the mining group interviewed “stakeholders”, spanning vice-presidents, senior executives, line supervisors and graduates, worldwide.

Mt Eliza Executive Education, part of MBS, was chosen alongside internationally renowned executive education providers, to work with BHP to develop a programme.

While a customised programme, by definition, is designed for one company to meet its specific development needs, the size and scope of the project led BHP “to be more closely involved than would otherwise be the case”, says Jayne Jennings, a senior consultant with MBS, who oversees the scheme.

Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, a private university in Santiago, Chile, offers the programme to graduates in North and South America. The University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business deals with graduates working in Europe and in Africa, while Universitas 21 Global, the Singapore-based online university, provides the online component.

The programme has been built around 20 competencies that BHP uses to recruit graduates, such as teamwork, negotiation and the ability to manage conflict and has a “blended learning” approach, including residential sessions. Graduates meet regularly online to discuss work issues and individual development. While programme content is largely the same in each region, group activities can reflect local nuances.

“We try to make the learning groups as cross functional and diverse as we can to get them to see things from a different perspective,” says Ms Westwood. “In a lot of cases in our organisation, [employees] are working virtually so we try to embed that in the programme early on.”

The programme tries to create strong peer networks to support graduates as they advance through the organisation, though the technology used to connect the employees, who often work in isolated locations, has not always been up to the task. While some aspects of the technology component work quite well, Ms Westwood concedes there are elements BHP would like to improve. “It was quite challenging to even find anyone that works well in that online university space.”

Ms Westwood says BHP has evaluated every element of the programme to ensure it is a worthwhile use of an employee’s time. “We want everything to impact on graduates, we want everything to build on something else.”

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