The Essentials: Graduate recruitment - University challenge

In the face of stiff competition from the private sector, how should charities market themselves to this and next summer's crop of graduates? Alexandra Coxon reports.

On paper, Emily Symington is the ideal candidate for a graduate role in the voluntary sector. She has a degree in English and Classics from a red-brick university and is desperate to work for an international charity.

She isn't lacking experience either. At college in Exeter, she chaired the Stop the War Coalition group - a role that gave her experience of organising events, including booking speakers and co-ordinating large-scale travel plans. She also recently returned from Palestine, where she did a stint as a humanitarian activist.

But despite applying for graduate-level jobs in the voluntary sector for the past four months, Symington's efforts have yet to bear fruit.

She hasn't had a single interview and is now wondering whether she will be forced to take an administrative role in the capital while she searches for something more suitable.

Symington's case isn't unique. A survey published in April by High Fliers Research revealed that only 36 per cent of this year's finalists expect to get graduate-level work when they leave university. Another 8 per cent said they were likely to take a temporary job or an unpaid position in the voluntary sector while they looked for more appropriate work.

So why aren't voluntary organisations doing more to capitalise on this 8 per cent when job opportunities arise - especially those, such as Symington, who actually want to make a career out of charity work? And how should they go about promoting the sector to the remainder?

The following steps should provide charities with ideas on how to market themselves to this and next summer's graduates in the face of stiff competition from for-profit businesses.

1. Establish whether the graduate route suits your organisation - Before trying to attract graduates to work for you, be sure it's the right decision.

Consider what roles you have available each year. Remember that graduates aren't typically interested in work that offers little long-term career progression. If the only positions that come up regularly are the kind that could be fulfilled by someone with an A-level education, be realistic about whether they would also suit a graduate.

Remember, too, the financial restraints on your organisation. As Paul Farrer, chief executive of the Graduate Recruitment Company, says: "There is a whole basket of motivations for graduates looking to work, including the job itself, the organisation, the boss, the team of people they would be working with, the training, the ability to progress, the ability to assess what contribution they're making, and even location.

"But money has to come in there as well. Students are becoming increasingly concerned about paying back debts such as student loans, with the result that salary expectations are distorting their other motivations."

The message is to be realistic about what you can offer. If the graduate salary you have in mind doesn't fall in line with those you see advertised by similar organisations in your area, then consider whether it would be possible to train up a non-graduate instead.

2. Get talking to the universities - Once you are in a position to offer graduate level work, you should start talking to the careers departments of local universities.

Declan Jones, director of the Social Enterprise Institute, part of the school of management at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, recommends that organisations with few resources discuss the matter with their local network first - if they are part of one - or at least talk to other charities to see how they've tackled the same challenge. This will help establish whether your preferred universities have a track record of placing people in the not-for-profit sector, or at least a desire to do so.

Once confirmed, ask the careers departments how they would prefer you to communicate with students. Ascertain whether they want you to provide leaflets and posters for the careers office on what your charity does.

"It's as much about awareness-raising on behalf of the charity as it is about targeting students with specific skills," says Jones.

Importantly, don't forget that the UK's top employers regularly target the top 50 or so universities, so you could find it hard to compete for airtime if you're pursuing the same establishments.

"Try the post-1992 universities," advises the Graduate Recruitment Company's Paul Farrer. "Because of tuition fees and student loans, there are lots of students who now choose to live at home. The top 10 or 15 per cent of those universities are easily as good academically as the red-bricks."

3. Look at setting up graduate internships Bigger organisations frequently offer annual recruitment programmes that give graduates the chance to experience a variety of roles for a couple of months at a time before deciding what suits them best. However, cash restraints can make it difficult to operate in the voluntary sector. Nevertheless, it is possible to give graduates a taste of your organisation at a fraction of the cost by setting up internships.

Oxfam recently abandoned its paid graduate recruitment scheme to do just that. Having found itself struggling to fill certain roles, the charity decided it would be better to give a bigger pool of people the opportunity to work on shorter and more specific projects, including regional placements in West Yorkshire, Bournemouth, Cardiff and Edinburgh, three times a year. In return for travel expenses and a lunch allowance, graduates now get to work on smaller assignments more closely matched to their career ambitions, in departments as varied as marketing, policy and international development.

"We deliberately try not to raise people's expectations that they'll get a paid post at the end of it," explains Oxfam's volunteering manager, Carolyn Myers. "But in the back of our minds, we're hoping that we'll encourage a lot of these people to stay."

4. Investigate other options Myers believes that organising graduate internships is as feasible for smaller organisations as it is for larger ones - as long as managers give individuals interesting projects and are honest about the availability of full-time vacancies. However, there are other ways to attract graduates.

"Think about appealing to students and tutors who would be interested in the sector from an ethical point of view," recommends SEI's Declan Jones. "They might want to do some research on behalf of your organisation, or about it, for dissertation purposes. The more you can spark students' interest while they are at college, the more likely you are to attract them back after they've finished their studies."

To this end, start talking to the student newspapers and student unions at your local universities, too. Make them aware of your organisation and keep them abreast of any news you have that could require student involvement.

The more publicity you get - whether through becoming the union's latest fundraising cause or getting a story into the student paper - the better able you'll be to target students once they've graduated.

5. Deal with the here and now Steps two to four will reap the best results if applied over the course of 12 months. But if you have graduate-level jobs to fill now, what options are open to you?

First of all, there's still value in talking to those careers departments.

Graduation comes around sooner than most students would like, and many work in their university town in the summer months. Talk to the careers officers about what you have to offer and see if they have anyone on file that fits your requirements.

College recruitment fairs can be a cost-effective way of reaching graduates, particularly as the smaller universities don't tend to charge exhibitors.

However, do be aware of the implications of participating. Having dozens of students dropping off their CVs at your stand could create more problems than solutions if you don't have the staff to deal with enquiries.

Failing these, there are the more traditional options. Check out the cost of advertising in your local paper as compared to national newspapers or sector publications. Alternatively, if you have specific requirements for, say, an accountant or research scientist, consider talking to a specialist recruitment consultant.

6. What to do after you've employed a graduate Whether you employ a graduate next month or next year, it's crucial that you give that person the best introduction to working life. Where possible, give your new employee a structured first month during which they can meet key personnel and stakeholders and get a feel for every aspect of the organisation's work. Identify someone experienced who is good with young people to mentor the new employee.

This isn't something that only the bigger organisations can organise effectively, incidentally. As David Wing, director of fundraising and communications at the charity Christian Blind Mission, puts it: "One of the strengths of an organisation our size is that we can almost tailor mentoring to the needs of the graduate concerned."


Fast-Track is a career development programme run by the disability organisation Scope. It is designed to help graduates with a disability to get into employment.

Although Fast-Track works with a number of for-profit partners to offer trainees paid work placements, the scheme has also had the knock-on effect of providing a source of highly talented graduate staff for Scope itself.

Barry Hayward, the project manager responsible for Fast-Track, always treated the charity like any other employer on the Fast-Track partner list. However, he has found that graduate take-up has been higher than ever since the charity announced the target of having 20 per cent of its workforce made up of disabled people by 2007.

With 10 graduates a year taking up placements that give them skills and experience in areas such as marketing, it's not surprising that fellow managers at the charity have been quizzing Hayward about which past trainees would suit full-time jobs at Scope. Such discussions have led to seven Fast-Track graduates being employed at the charity's headquarters - one of whom, Cat Hudson, is now external relations officer for the "Time to Get Equal" campaign. "I was keen to get experience in a large blue-chip company, and decided that I wanted to move into PR," explains Liverpool University graduate Hudson, who did a nine-month placement in the PR department at Kodak before moving to Scope.

"I had already started looking around and wanted to work in disability rights campaigning," she says. "I felt that I had gained a lot of experience and wanted to apply it to something I felt would make a real difference. That's when I applied for a role at Time to Get Equal. I'm now on a permanent contract and have been with Scope for a year."

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