Grabbing the grads

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Grabbing the grads
Recruiting graduates into the food and drink manufacturing industry is a bit like leading a horse to water and trying to make it drink, Rebecca Green finds out what can be done to ease the burden on employers

Recruiting new staff can be a headache for businesses at the best of times, but when that business is in food and drink manufacturing, which suffers from a less than attractive image, the headache can become more of a migraine. So it follows that attracting the ‘cream of the crop’, the graduates, could prove even more of a struggle.

But help is at hand in a number of guises. Cornish pasty maker Proper Cornish is currently enjoying the enthusiasm and fresh thinking of three graduates, thanks to a regional scheme called Unlocking Cornish Potential (UCP), a Combined Universities in Cornwall (CUC) partnership project managed by Cornwall College and funded by the European Social Fund (Objective One).

The scheme is designed to increase businesses’ growth and profitability with six-month or year-long graduate placements and, in the case of Proper Cornish, has allowed the company to embark on projects that would not otherwise have been undertaken. As commercial director Jane Flowerdew explains: “Without it we wouldn’t have done the market research project, which is invaluable to us. But it’s difficult to recruit someone to do a project just for one year.”

UCP deals with all administration and the recruitment process pays a subsidy of up to £6,000 on the graduate’s salary (a minimum of £15,000) and assigns mentors to recruits to help push projects forward.

Lucy Atherton, who is working on a marketing project at Proper Cornish, as well as a feasibility study into export opportunities, joined the company in June after completing a marketing degree. “The support from UCP is really good. I get assigned a mentor who I can contact if there is anything I want to go over, for instance if I’m doing a presentation, so I get help externally not just internally. I also get a project officer who is on call if I need any advice or training,” she says. “Through UCP I have found a really challenging opportunity and a chance to make a difference to this company.”

Flowerdew adds: “The scheme benefits both the company and the individual. We will definitely do it again.” UCP also put together the job description so the company gets the best out of the graduate it employs and as project officer Louise Oldham points out, 70% of graduates are offered full time jobs once the placement is finished.

But what about recruiting graduates for full-time roles? According to Simon Reichwald, director of graduate recruitment company Graduate Success, this is a major problem for many employers in the industry, for two reasons, the main one being a lack of awareness. “Most graduates don’t know how big the industry is or what the opportunities are,” he says. Secondly, trying to find graduates to go into operational or production roles is difficult. “It’s tough at the best of times but it’s even tougher in the food industry, which suffers from an image of being dirty and smelly.”

Poor image

He adds: “All too often graduates just see the industry as production lines and factory floors. Maybe they spent a summer working on the factory floor and thought they never wanted to get into that industry, but that’s because they don’t see the other side of the industry - the sales and marketing roles. It’s hard work for employers to get the calibre of graduates they are looking for.”

While Reichwald supports schemes like UCP (“there are plenty of projects sitting on desks waiting to be done and plenty of graduates that need experience”), he also advocates the need for a more long-term solution. “The industry needs some forward looking organisations who will realise that in 10 years time there will be a huge hole to fill. The food and drink industry needs to get more proactive and ‘woo’ the talent, chuck their hats in the ring and get out there and start making more noise. But it’s not going to happen overnight. And sadly, one company on its own is not going to have a lot of impact.” The answer, believes Reichwald, is for a group of companies to join forces and get out into institutions to talk about the opportunities available and send out the right message, “which is that if you have ambition, there are some massive opportunities here”

But perhaps the biggest challenge is that companies are preaching to the un-converted, he adds. “People doing food science degrees are already thinking about careers in the food industry, but those doing degrees in business and economics probably won’t be and we need to change that.”

In demand but not demanding

Crucially, of the clients that come to Reichwald looking to recruit graduates, between 40 and 50% need to fill production and operation roles in the food and drink industry. Sadly, the demand is not the same the other way round. “It is incredibly rare for a graduate to come to us looking for a job in the industry. When it does happen we leap out of our skins with excitement.

“Most of the graduates we talk to have not even considered it. Those that do end up in it do so almost by accident - too many graduates end up here by chance rather than by choice.”

Ironically, most graduates with Graduate Success say they want to work with people, and most of the company’s clients with vacancies in production actually want someone with good people and management skills, not necessarily a scientist, says Reichwald. “I can’t think of any career better than that in food manufacturing.”

Graduates need to realise how in demand they are, adds Reichwald, especially when there is an over supply of graduates elsewhere. “Lots of food and drink businesses are crying out for graduates, but there seems to be this gap between the two.”

However, for the big guns, often with graduate programmes, problems arise in dealing with large numbers of applicants quickly and efficiently. For confectionery giant Cadbury Schweppes, this has been achieved by replacing paper numerical and verbal reasoning tests with online versions, slashing the time candidates spend on them by half.

Each year over 4,000 candidates apply for 20 places on the scheme, and as resourcing manager Oliver West explains, carrying out the broadest assessment as early as possible is crucial.

“Online tests save us time [and] give us more information on which to assess candidates,” says West. “Ultimately they help us make a better quality of hire.” FM

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