Turning round the traffic

The UK’s graduate population has doubled in the past 10 years. But for the companies recruiting them, in engineering in particular, finding the right calibre of graduate is increasingly difficult. The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) exists to represent their interests. Now, under new chief executive Carl Gilleard, with a new team, and new offices […]

The UK’s graduate population has doubled in the past 10 years. But for the companies recruiting them, in engineering in particular, finding the right calibre of graduate is increasingly difficult. The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) exists to represent their interests.

Now, under new chief executive Carl Gilleard, with a new team, and new offices at Warwick University’s technology park, which officially opened yesterday, it faces new challenges.

‘As we move into the information age, the AGR is ideally placed to influence the dialogue between higher education and employment,’ says Gilleard. ‘There is no longer a typical graduate. There is a diverse student population, at a time when there are major changes in the way we work.’

This is changing the AGR’s priorities. Its executive committee is reviewing the organisation’s role. ‘It’s very much about promotion of best practice in graduate recruitment.’

The AGR was formed 30 years ago by groups of graduate recruiters from large companies who wanted to put graduate recruitment higher up the company agenda. By 1998 its influence was firmly established in the graduate recruitment sector.

The association has about 600 members, and in the past six months another 40 have joined. ‘We are raising standards of recruitment by offering services like a helpline, which is also a good barometer of members’ concerns,’ Gilleard says.

The association also publishes research: it has projects looking into skills needed for the 21st century, and the problem of retaining graduates once they have been hired. And for engineering, there is the problem of attracting enough high-calibre candidates.

In sectors like engineering, Gilleard has noticed the pace of career change quickening. ‘There is growing interest in contact with students. But if employers want to attract graduates to engineering, they have to try and improve its image. They have a battle, because they are in a declining sector.’

He adds that at the moment, ‘there is one-way traffic. Engineering graduates are leaving, not coming into, the profession. It is not difficult for an engineering graduate to train as an accountant in fact, engineers are targeted by accountancy groups. But engineering companies cannot overnight turn an accountant into an engineer.’

Gilleard has first-hand experience of the engineering sector. He started his career in the personnel department of a Yorkshire engineering firm. He moved on to giving careers advice and managing careers services, most recently for local government.

Then, he says: ‘I had decided to work for myself, in consultancy. I had been active on the AGR executive committee, and applied for the post of chief executive when it came up.’

A big worry for recruiters is that the cost of securing a graduate is going up. ‘In the eyes of any employer, it is an expensive business,’ Gilleard says. ‘Today, two thirds know the average cost [around £5,500], whereas a year ago, only 41% of employers were aware of the figures. Companies like ICL say that if you add the expense of a two-year training programme, the cost increases to £40,000 £50,000. That’s why they are so interested in retaining graduates.’

The AGR may have a high profile but its resources are small. Gilleard envisages a growing role for networking and exchanging information among members, as well as greater involvement in research.

The association has just commissioned London University’s Birkbeck College to study graduate retention. ‘The findings will be of particular interest to manufacturing and engineering,’ Gilleard says.

‘High recruitment and training costs mean that employers in these sectors are keen to retain staff, and the best way to do that is to help develop personal and career goals as well as technical skills.’ This makes recruits more marketable to other companies, but employers have no option but to provide such training.

Gilleard suggests engineers can overcome the image problem by having closer links with young people, through offering work experience, and by getting more involved with students.

‘The image problem has been under discussion for as long as I can remember,’ he adds, ‘but only the industry itself can correct it. As for the problem of skills shortages, it does tax us. It is something we will look at.’

When students choose an engineering degree, it is important that as many as possible chose to stick with it. At present, a fairly large group changes its mind graduates who think they will be better off in another sector.

‘Employers must behave positively,’ Gilleard advises. ‘The technical side of engineering has to be sold with a passion.’

To enable the association to provide a growing range of information and services, Gilleard hopes to boost its funds. The executive committee is considering finding sponsorship for research, and running conferences and seminars.

But they are treading carefully. ‘The question is how to make our expertise work, but not compete with our members,’ Gilleard says.