Graduates. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em - or at least, that's the attitude of some employers who at best cynically see them as cheap labour. The word 'graduate' for some bosses conjures up images of closeted academics with few of the practical skills most food processors are after.
But what if you could secure a student with precisely the talents needed to boost your business with a few clicks of a mouse?
That's the premise behind the next stage of the Graduate Talent Pool, launched by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) at the end of July. All students graduating from 2008 can apply. The main focus of the initiative is a website connected to a database of thousands of graduates pursuing paid and unpaid internships and employers in all industries offering openings. The umbrella scheme taps into a range of programmes, including mini Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP), in which academic bodies exchange insight with businesses.
The aim is to grow a database that will support 5,000 graduate internships, building on more than 2,000 already set up through the Higher Education Funding Council's Economic Challenge Investment Fund.
The Graduate Talent Pool did not exist when Fudge Kitchen linked up with Julie Crenn, graduate intern at Greenwich University, via a mini KTP. But the results of that meeting perfectly illustrate the potential of the initiative - first announced by Universities and Skills Secretary John Denham in April.
With a turnover of £1.3M, Fudge Kitchen operates much like a small bakery chain, making and selling fudge from seven (soon to be eight) UK retail locations. It was ticking along nicely, but had hit a brick wall in terms of expansion. It needed to extend product shelf-life beyond five to seven days to distribute and sell them to a wider audience of farm shops, delicatessens and food halls.
Crenn, who had just completed a Masters degree in food science studies, was investigating the possibility of a PhD in the field and considering internships. And it so happened that enhancing shelf-life was one of her specialities.
Step forward Fudge Kitchen md Sian Holt to pick up the story. "Julie came on board with a view to helping us extend our product shelf-life, which she did by 300%. The project lasted a year. Initially it was for six months, but we extended it to 12. We thought we would get better results through packaging, but Julie found the answers in reformulation." Crenn worked for two days a week with Fudge Kitchen as a food technologist, while studying for three days at the university.
Hiring a consultant or a food research laboratory were other routes Holt could have taken, but she says that would have cost tens of thousands of pounds - far more than it took to support Crenn's work. "A consultant also often works at arms length; a graduate becomes part of your organisation and team," says Holt. Crenn was able to visit Fudge Kitchen's shops, teaching her new recipe to the staff, whereas Holt says: "We would never be able to afford a consultant touring around the length and breadth of our company." Consultants can also be more cagey about their methods, she says.
A major benefit of the Graduate Talent Pool is its ability to slash the time needed to locate a graduate specialist. "It took a year for me to get on the right track," says Holt. "I started Googling 'shelf-life extension' and 'packaging'. Each university has a knowledge transfer manager and I was lucky - the South East Development Agency had just launched funding for a mini-KTP and they called us. It would be much more straightforward now."
Crenn's breakthrough is expected to boost Fudge Kitchen's turnover by 7-10%, securing new business with about 60 outlets, illustrating how valuable she proved to be.
It wasn't just Fudge Kitchen that reaped the benefits from the link-up, though. Crenn, who began her year-long project at the processor in August 2007, says: "I wanted to do a PhD and work with the industry. I didn't want to work just in a lab on my own. It was a nice transition between university and being put into a new company."
Crenn gave her CV to her academic supervisor, who forwarded in to Holt, who took her on after an informal interview.
"I learned lots about sugar," says Crenn. "I didn't know how to make fudge - at university you understand the majority, but don't go into detail because you never have time. I had to teach myself about sugar and sugar crystallisation. But the university was very good. Every time I wanted to know something, I would email them.
"I first looked at the process, the properties of the ingredients, boiling temperature, time spent cooling on the table. I made a list of ingredients that could increase shelf-life and there were a lot of sensory taste panels. If there was any change in texture, an ingredient was put to one side and another was tried."
She says she had to deal with initial resistance from staff that had been at the company a long time and were wary of the changes she was proposing. "I had to do my experiments in the shops and run a team of people and learned a lot about troubleshooting and negotiation. Some saw me at first as the big bad wolf who would change everything - that was hard."
On a personal level, Crenn says the year-long graduate scheme built her self-confidence as well by forcing her to confront technical and managerial challenges. Her practical experience with Fudge Kitchen had other benefits too. Greenwich University is now employing Crenn as a part time lecturer in new product development.
Having finished her initial work on shelf-life a year ago, she is now working on a series of other commissions for Fudge Kitchen. They include concocting a fudge sauce, designing a domestic fudge making kit and improving packaging to increase product shelf-life. "I suspect a lot of companies would end up retaining a graduate once they could see the commercial benefits," says Crenn.
For more information about visit the Graduate Talent Pool, or call BIS on 0845 072 7598. FM