Rachel Whale: How can you attract the best graduates to your organisation?

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As graduate salaries fall, and competition in the graduate market increases, how can employers make sure they are making the most of the talent coming into and through their organisations?

Anyone who’s been involved in graduate recruitment will know that the hard work really starts when graduates actually land at the organisation. The risk of a graduate being under-utilised or getting stuck is high, and even if the work immediately grabs their interest, their attention will rapidly shift to the next challenge, and the next opportunity. As such, in this piece I’m going to focus less on how to attract graduate talent in the first place, and more on how to get the most out of talent while it’s with you.

The UK non-profit sector is rarely associated with high salaries, so news that graduate salaries are dropping across the board will likely have little tangible impact on graduate recruitment in this space. All the same, the fact that the majority of organisations in the sector are unable to pay high salaries means that the charities and housing associations that have historically made the most of graduate talent have always had to be aware of what they can offer beyond a paycheck. While the non-profit sector’s graduate offer is still relatively under-developed compared to the public and commercial sectors, it is a useful place to look when thinking about how to find and develop great people in an innovative and cost effective way.

In many ways the non-profit sector has a relatively straightforward offer for graduates looking beyond their paycheck, particularly if the candidate has a particular affinity with their cause. I was particularly struck by this recent Demos report, ‘Generation Change’, which showed the interest young people have in making a positive contribution to the world through their work.

Both those things would suggest that charities have an easy ride when it comes to maintaining employee motivation, my experience from running Charityworks over the last few years is that ultimately, a graduate’s job satisfaction depends on the same things as employees in any organisation, and in any sector; it’s about impact and progression. They may be willing to compromise on salary, but only if they are rewarded with the opportunity to learn, grow, and make a real contribution to the organisation’s work.

Charityworks is an unusual model for graduate recruitment and development; a fundamentally collaborative programme open to any charity or housing association, with a mission to transform a whole sector as well as individual organisations. This model inevitably gives us some flexibility as to how we approach the issue of graduate development, while also requiring us to find an approach in a way that suits multiple organisations rather than one.  So how do we do that, and how can we, and others, compete with graduate opportunities which offer much higher remuneration?

Obviously there’s no easy answer, and the most effective approaches will vary according to individual organisations, though I think it’s fair to say that the success of any given approach will depend to a large extent on the quality of line management at an organisation. At Charityworks we work to what we call the 3 ’Cs’, which means we encourage our people and the people we work with to be “conscious, curious and challenged”. This principle guides our graduate recruitment, helping us find the people we want to work with, and at the same time gives us a structure to make sure we are providing our trainees with the opportunities and responsibilities which allow them to develop and progress without getting or feeling stuck.

Conscious. We spend a lot of time testing for, and trying to instill, a high level of self awareness in the people who come through Charityworks. We believe that people who are conscious of themselves, their environment, and how the two relate to each other, are better able to understand their own motivations and therefore identify what development they need to succeed and stay happy in their role or organisation.

Curious. We take every opportunity to feed the intellectual and professional curiosity we see in our best people. These people are irrepressibly motivated to find out how things work, and to work out how they can work better. We seek to give them the space to explore and investigate, both inside and outside the organisation. This is one particular area where Charityworks really benefits from a pan-sector, collaborative approach. The fact that organisations join the programme knowing that they are buying into a network committed to people development, means that they open their doors to mentoring, shadowing and research from other organisations and individuals.

Challenge. This, in my opinion, is the key to developing and retaining talented people. Future leaders tend to seek out and respond well to challenging problems and tasks, mastering the basics of their role quickly, and swiftly looking for the next test. I often think of this as ‘fire in the belly’, and by maintaining the level of challenge for people who demonstrate it, you help them develop the resilience and skills you will need them to have in the future. I think this is one of the reasons we see so many young people considering working in the start-up world, because as well as the potential financial rewards it gives them an immediate opportunity to experience a work environment in which they have genuine responsibility and real challenge.

Alongside this, I think organisations have to be ready to let great people go. An obsession with retention only hurts us, and is one of the things I consistently see holding organisations back from giving their staff the opportunities which help them reach their potential. Of course this often backfires, with talented people not being given the opportunities they need to succeed.

Ultimately I think any organisation has the raw materials to give graduate employees a powerful developmental experience, particularly if they can find a way to join forces with other like-minded employers. I think the collaborative approach to talent which sits at the heart of Charityworks has the potential to impact on other sectors, and it would be fascinating to hear how others think this kind of approach might inform their organisation or sector.

Author: Rachel Whale, Founder, Charityworks, the UK’s leading non-profit graduate scheme

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