Bob Athwal – It is crucial that the human element of graduate recruitment is retained

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Some employers are no longer asking for degrees as a job requirement. What is the use of a degree from Oxford University?

Bob Athwal is a man on a mission. After devoting his working life to graduate recruitment, the man from the University of Leicester is now turning his attentions to ensuring that the human element in the search for talent is not removed from the process. He is a passionate defender of the qualities of the current crop of students and believes that they deserve better.

Graduate recruitment is in flux at the moment, what are some of the key changes and developments that are happening in the arena?gradrecbadge-badge

Recruitment operations within organisations have had to be trimmed down due to the economic downturn and they have been forced into doing more with less when it comes to graduate recruitment. At the same time there has been a conscious decision lately to make sure any kind of social bias is removed from recruitment processes. The processes have had to be made leaner and meaner, while ensuring that they are not unfair to any social group. Social mobility has become a very interesting topic. Entry requirements are being dropped, some companies are no longer demanding a 2:1 degree from the people they hire or 300 UCAS points, they are simply looking for the best talent and that talent can come from anywhere and there will be no arbitrary measures put in place that will stop that talent from coming forward. This attempt to widen talent pools is really the key movement in graduate recruitment at the moment. Biographical information is also being removed from CVs to prevent any kind of bias.

An employer in some cases would simply not be interested in knowing what university a potential employee had been to?

Yes, they are trying remove the bias. It’s not that there is anything wrong with Oxbridge. But, employers are starting to realise that if they want to represent the world in which they do business, and society at large, then the people that comprise their firm has to look the same. That is not to say that they are going to compromise on quality, they are simply going to cast their net wider in order to find that quality.

One would imagine that employers are going to consider with a greater weight, internships and apprenticeships, if they are not as interested in university degrees as they used to be?

Apprenticeships have been rising in the last few years thanks to the focus that have been put on them by the government at the recent launch of the apprenticeship level. Graduate recruitment, apprenticeships and internships are all in the same early careers pipeline, which aims to bring good people into an organisation. Graduate recruitment will always have a role to play in a business, but its role may being to shrink as the rise in apprenticeships takes effect. However, there is a place for both graduate recruitment and recruitment via apprenticeships in an organisation.

So would you predict that the number of graduates over the next few years will likely fall, because of the net being cast wider to find more diverse talent?

There are a lot of factors, until 2020, for example, there will be less 18 year olds because of the low birth rate, so there will be a tighter talent pool. But, if you look at the historic graduate schemes, for example at npower where I used to work, the numbers on those courses have not always been high, usually numbering between 25 and 50. And then you have the bigger organisations, such as the big four energy companies, which will recruit in the thousands. But generally the average scheme will welcome around fifty graduates, so we are not talking huge numbers. However I do think the number on schemes will slightly decline as the number of apprenticeships rise and also there will be an artificial fall because of the decline in the numbers of eighteen year olds.

You did quite a lot of work with npower, helping them to create a graduate scheme, can you tell me a little bit about the scheme you created and your thinking behind it?

When I joined npower they had several schemes, there was a general management scheme, there was a finance and HR scheme, engineering and science scheme. So depending on what your discipline was you would come into the business, whether you were going to be an engineer working in a power station, or whether you were going to be in general business management working in the retail side of the business. We would go to universities to showcase the opportunities that we have to offer and how we would develop graduates and the find the right fit for the business. So for the six years that I was there, npower had a graduate organisation that was recognised for being a top 100 employer and were recognised for being quite innovative and won awards for that. I think this was because of the way we were trying to bring the context of what it takes to be in a utility and the skills and experience that you need. The whole purpose of it was to make sure that we got the right people and that really is the name of the game when it comes to graduate recruitment, it’s about getting the right talent into the business so that you meet the business’s needs.

Social media is changing recruitment, but does that mean the human element is being removed from the process?

There is a real danger that as companies get leaner and meaner and more effective and efficient in scouting for talent, that the human element of the process is lost. The human aspect is really what recruitment is all about. It’s about finding people and having a conversation with people. The system should not become too transactional, because you are seeing people at the start of their careers that genuinely are learning and sometimes need a little bit of guidance to make the right decisions. It will be a real same if the mentoring element of graduate recruitment is lost if the system becomes too transactional. Reaching out to campuses and meeting students is important. We need to keep an eye on this, we don’t want to lose the human interaction.

Sometimes people only apply for jobs online and then the interviews are done online for example.

I think that is the case a little bit. One of the reasons we had such a great success rate at npower and one of the reasons why any graduate scheme is successful is because it has very senior buy-in, for example when a CEO or a senior board member really wants to push graduate recruitment onto the agenda.

Do you think there will be an effort made in the future to make sure it remains a human process?

I hope it stays human. That would be my plea. But, the danger is that it might go the other way. But I would hope that people will see the real advantages in keeping the process a human one. And even with social media and with the different ways of learning, you can see that people still want face time, people still want to interact. You cannot treat everybody the same. So I think that the human aspect should remain, even if it is delivered in a slightly different way in the future.

When you say a ‘different way’ is there anything you have in mind in particular?

Yes. Lose the corporate stuff I would say. Lose the jargon and the giving of information that you think you would like people to hear. Instead graduate recruiters have to play to people’s values and strengths and then align them with an organisation. People generally want to do something because they have a passion for it and you have to go out of your way to find those passionate people. Realism is required and also, most importantly, authenticity, rather than here’s our corporate website and here is our corporate brochure. People want to be spoken to slightly differently, they want to be treated as people with a social conscience. This new generation are a good bunch of kids who are really passionate about the world in which they live and they should be treated as such. And what is more , they like to be interacted with slightly differently than other generations have been interacted with. We should not confuse technology with a loss of personalisation.

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