Greater Expectations? Let’s rethink graduate recruitment

It’s a nice round twenty years this year since I graduated from the University of Liverpool with a degree in Philosophy and three years of very happy memories. I can’t dwell too much on that otherwise I’ll come over all misty-eyed and nostalgic for the good old days of afternoon drinking, Monday night clubbing and 9.30am lectures seeming impossibly early…

The world then was a totally different place. I’d never even seen the internet with my own eyes before I came to Liverpool. I’d borrowed my Dad’s Amstrad “Portable Personal Computer” once or twice – an early forerunner to the modern laptop running MS-DOS on a green LCD screen – but only to type a few letters. Mobile phones were the preserve of red brace-wearing, Porsche 911-driving yuppies. Everything was paper-based, from the UCAS form to faxing a letter to the University during the dreaded Clearing.

I’m one of those students who didn’t think too much about a career during university. I didn’t have a strong vocation, other than a desire to enjoy what I did, fuelled in particular by a series of money-earning but spiritually-destroying summer jobs. So when it came to those heady few days as a “graduand” (the odd lame duck period when you’ve done all your exams but have not yet graduated), I thought I’d better get my head around it fairly quickly.

At that time, it seemed that the expectation was that you would follow the traditional graduate recruitment scheme route into a corporate career. I considered all sorts of graduate schemes and even applied for the odd one or two. My heart wasn’t really in it, being honest: it never felt quite right for me when I tried to imagine myself in the jobs they described. Disheartened, I actually spent some (more productive) time talking to banks about opening up my own record shop. I learned a bit about financial and business planning from that – but I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t have ended well given the subsequent explosion of digital media! I stumbled around a bit, did some temporary jobs with variable levels of success and eventually found myself doing HR.

I fully recognise that I didn’t engage that much with the Careers department at the time and possibly, if I had done so, things may have gone differently. But in one of my temporary jobs I worked with a team of graduates from the previous five years or so, all earning what was then the equivalent of minimum wage, knowing they were in a “dead-end job”, all with a horrifyingly dead look in their eyes throughout the working day. The day they offered me a permanent contract, I resolved to get out. The one thing I did know was that I didn’t want that…

Fast forward almost twenty years and I was invited by the careers service at my almer mater (you can’t talk about university without a gratuitous bit of Latin, right?) to give a talk to some Philosophy students in their final year. It felt like an opportunity for salvation, almost a chance to speak to the 18 year old me again. But what to say? Hand on heart, would I do anything differently given the chance to do it again? I don’t think I would. I’m a believer in the Fundamental Interconnectedness of Things (copyright Douglas Adams). I wouldn’t be doing what I do today (which I love) if I hadn’t been on the journey I’ve been on.

The person speaking at the careers event before me was espousing her international company’s graduate scheme. She outlined the stages of the recruitment process and the roles that the successful candidates could expect to experience within the company. It sounded like a great grounding in the corporate world. But the Philosophy students were mainly lounging on their (admittedly slump-inducing) seats, looking like she was talking about life on Mars. And I was staggered that it could have been twenty years earlier: literally nothing had changed from my time of sitting through those talks.

It struck me then that I had to rip up my prepared notes and speak to them straightforwardly. Thankfully the graduate recruitment person left after her bit. I told them that the traditional graduate recruitment scheme stuff was absolutely fine and dandy – for a very small bunch of people. I had felt a bit of a failure for not getting onto one for a while and I shared that with them. And told them categorically that they should not. Last time I checked over 90% of businesses in this country are SMEs. They need fresh ideas, fresh thinking and new blood as much as corporates – if not more. Who is out there campaigning to get graduates to think about the small to medium companies where they can get involved in EVERYTHING, truly develop an understanding of things like marketing, cash flow, P&L, office politics and the nuts and bolts of people management?

OK, I got a bit carried away. But they seemed to like it and the mood in the room lifted considerably. They even asked me some questions. Warming to the topic, I told them that it’s not the be-all and end-all to get it right first time, or even second or third time. I’ve know people successfully retrain and have successful new careers well into their 40s and 50s – and probably older again.

It feels like a one-shot scenario when you’re in the middle of it. I hope on that day I helped a small bunch of slightly bewildered Philosophy students realise it isn’t. We need to give our undergraduates realistic expectations of the world of work – but also give them something tangible to aim at. And it shouldn’t necessarily be the traditional graduate scheme.

I’ve just had an email from the University asking me to reprise the talk in a few weeks…

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