Rachel Johnson, head of careers and employer engagement at UCAS Media, talked to Business Advice about what small businesses should be considering when aiming to recruit graduates and school leavers.
As the commercial arm of the charity which provides an admission service to undergraduates, UCAS Media is focused on establishing connections with young people and matching up employers with a suitable audience.
Johnson feels many blue chip employers “tend to be after the same group of people, from the same universities”, while STEM is always in demand for the skills developed as well as the “analytical behaviour” those who study in the tech, engineering and math fields tend to have.
At the same time, she pointed out that not all graduate positions are being filled – a survey of 200 employer members at the Association of Graduate Recruiters reported over 1,400 unfilled vacancies.
There has been much made of the skills shortage the UK is facing, a repeated reason cited to explain lagging productivity and a hindrance on economic recovery.
In late 2014, Kevin Green, CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), said: “Last year we had nine areas of skills shortages, now we have 43 areas. Every single type of engineering is in short supply, from mechanical to software, civil to electrical.”
Elsewhere, IT, coders, doctors and nurses and teachers were all mentioned as being in short supply. The CBI’s head of employment and education said it was “particularly true” for high-level skills in sectors like engineering, technology, digital, manufacturing and construction.
Nearly 40 per cent of businesses looking for staff with STEM skills have run into difficulty when recruiting, according to the CBI’s research.
While George Osborne’s budget pledged to turnaround Britain’s productivity struggles, some weren’t convinced about whether his plans would effectively tackle the skills shortage. New measures were unveiled to boost apprenticeships, as well as the enforced national living wage. While the CBI said the apprenticeships would help, they weren’t necessarily going to be cultivating skills where businesses currently need it most.
“Worryingly, it’s those high-growth, high-value sectors which are the ones under most pressure,” deputy director general Katja Hall said.
The introduction of a levy on large firms to pay for training was, Hall added, “unlikely to equate to higher quality or deliver the skills that industry needs”.
With the skills shortage proving an ongoing concern for businesses of all sizes, are there any particular actions micro firms can take to improve their chances of securing suitable candidates?
UCAS Media’s Johnson thinks building local connections is highly worthwhile here. “Derby is creating relationships with local businesses while the students are at university, which allows firms to sell themselves,” she pointed out as an example. This sort of set-up would allow micro businesses to provide opportunities for students, establish a personal relationship with local universities and begin to set up solid prospects for recruitment.
Again, there’s a benefit to planning ahead – both for students and for businesses. While many start thinking about graduate employment in the September to January period of the final year of university, Johnson said it’d be better to “focus on early engagement and build that relationship earlier on”.
It’s particularly pertinent for an early-stage firm, which might be on the verge of recruiting and thinking about which type of candidate would be most suitable for the role. Starting to make connections and log interest with universities as to what opportunities there might be to establish a mutually beneficial network could get you tapped into a range of talent, as well as serve to make your business name more recognisable.
“It’s a chance to show students what’s out there, and the alternative career paths to what they might have been considering,” Johnson added. However, she acknowledged that micro businesses may feel up against it when it comes to salary and marketing budgets – which is why the value of cultivating a personal relationship can be so important.
There’s also an advantage to thinking outside the obvious when it comes to your ideal candidates, and while bigger companies may be playing tug-of-war over graduates from Russell Group universities, school leavers can be a great option too.
Johnson mentioned a prominent bank which had been recruiting a third of its initial intake from school leavers and two thirds graduates, and today this is now the reverse, after it changed up its approach. Elsewhere, EY has just announced it will be removing all academic and education details from its trainee application process, in a bid to boost workplace diversity and remove qualifications serving as a barrier for many.
Students and businesses also need to be more tuned into the fact there are “lots of regional opportunities”, she added. It can be useful to be more localised in how you go about recruiting and give both graduates and school leavers the chance to see what other options are out there.
Research from Direct Line for Business in June indicated that more students were looking towards entrepreneurialism as a career option, with a fifth concerned about job opportunities. Employing as a micro business has the advantage of offering an entrepreneurial set-up and the appeal for prospective recruits to make their mark on the firm. Capitalising on this positive feeling towards new businesses could also be a good opening gambit.
Smaller businesses can make a significant difference to their own prospects by reaching out and building early engagement, but Johnson also feels students need to be proactive in their efforts. “You can’t expect to be handed your job on a plate. What are you going to university for in the first place? To progress yourself vocationally or academically,” she said. “It’s no different to thinking ahead and deciding you want to be a vet from an early age, then planning out the university and courses.”
Businesses that help make this easier by directly establishing a relationship early on are likely to reap the benefits.
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