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Skids under fast tracks

Published: Saturday, 08 May 2004   Category: Career Advice | Sales and marketing

David Williams detects changes in recruitment policy which could spell the death of the graduate training scheme

Is the writing on the wall for fast track graduate development programmes? This would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. But, with so many more graduates around, with society becoming more meritocratic and anti-elitist, and with there being a much wider subscription to the concept of diversity, something fundamental could be about to change.

It may be that the whole idea of being able to identify a small, elite group of graduates and then fast-tracking them through the early stages of their career even before they had any real work experience is about to be reassessed.

According to Terry Jones, communications co-ordinator with the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), some recruiters are beginning to look for new models for the way they deal with graduates. "Perhaps the policy area that is ripe for development is the use that our economy makes of those graduates who are in work but are not fully exploiting the skills and knowledge gathered at such great expense," he says. "Some of the traditional graduate recruiters are beginning to explore this idea and are questioning the established models of graduate recruitment. For instance, a major bank that recruits 50 people onto an annual scheme may also easily recruit 500 people - who happen to be graduates - into specific roles in the business in the same year. Getting full value from the skills of this 500 could be the next big challenge for recruiters."
What does this means for today's graduates? It suggests employers are starting to look at new ways of identifying talent rather than just putting all their emphasis on fast track graduate programmes. So, take heart: if you haven't been successful in your application, new paths to the top could be opening up.

One organisation that has been quick to respond to this challenge is the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). The bank receives 15,000 applications for the 200 or so places on its graduate development programme, and, unusually for a traditional recruiter, it is intending to re-direct some of next year's unsuccessful applicants towards joining as direct entrants. "We recognise that within the organisation we have a wealth of talent," says Annabel Burrows, graduate recruitment manager for RBS. "And as such we make available a wide range of training and developmental opportunities that ensure that everyone within the organisation - whether he or she joined on a graduate development programme or not - has access to the appropriate opportunities to fulfil their potential. The only difference is that on the graduate programmes these opportunities occur in a planned way over a defined period. "While we carefully design our graduate training to provide the organisation with the appropriate talent, undertaking a graduate development programme is in no sense an automatic entry route to senior management, and it in no way excludes people from opportunity who have not been on the programme. We only take on around 200 graduates a year and the annual number of second-step management vacancies in RBS is many times that number so there are a lot of opportunities."

RBS maintains a graduate development programme in order to hedge its bets and ensure that there are enough talented people in the organisation who can become the middle and senior managers of the future. However, other organisations are, at least for the moment, prepared to take the risk that they don't need a traditional graduate scheme at all. "We stopped running a graduate-entry scheme about four years ago," says Mike Ellis, management development manager at B&Q. "We took the view that there is already a lot of talent in the organisation and that we would be able to fill our management vacancies from the people who are already working for us. We have fast track schemes, but the high-potential, high-performing people who go through them are identified and nominated only after they have shown us what they can do on the job. "These people might be graduates; they might not. But we can be confident that they are people who are motivated by working and succeeding at B&Q rather than just being attracted to the training and the salary. "This is our current view and it may of course change. Within management development, our primary purpose is to make sure that we have the right talent to fill the management roles that become available. If we were to find that we couldn't do that internally, then we might reconsider putting a graduate scheme back in place, but that is not something we are currently considering."

Other organisations are retaining their trainee programmes but making them less elitist. "When we asked our senior managers about how they would like us to improve our young talent trainee scheme, they told us they didn't just want people from the top universities," says Martin Hird, director of talent management at the Royal Mail. "What they wanted was for graduates from a diverse background to do a two-year scheme and only then, once they had demonstrated their ability, to be put on any sort of fast track programme. "It's very 'blue-sky' at the moment, but we are also exploring the idea of running a fast track training scheme which had no entry qualifications whatsoever. This would run alongside the more orthodox programme but would be open to anyone regardless of whether they had a degree, or just A levels or even only GCSEs."

What connects all of these experiments with redefining the management trainee programme is the idea of looking at someone's performance on the job rather than predicting their potential from their academic qualifications and how well they present themselves at assessment centres. This of course is the traditional model of elite graduate recruitment, and it rests upon the idea that it's possible to predict at age 21 which graduates will be the rising corporate stars at age 41.

Many graduates who have been through assessment centres reject intuitively the whole idea that their potential can be measured in this way, while the rationale behind the assessment centre has recently come under strong academic criticism. If the recruitment industry were to lose faith with prediction and return to on-the-job performance as its criteria for fast track development, then that would be the death knell for the elite graduate development scheme.

Source: Saturday May 8, 2004
The Guardian

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