The latest round of A-level results last week highlighted a growing trend. Employers are progressively not only ‘acquiring’ talent among A-level students, but also influencing the content of some degree courses.

So what can they do to ensure that they are in the best position to attract – and retain – this talent that has been ‘acquired’ at such an early age?
 
The prospect of rising tuition fees in 2012 and increased competition for university places this year means that further education is no longer the default option for many sixth formers. As a result, companies are seeing a deluge of applications from sixth form students for their professional training or apprenticeship programmes.
 
Retailer Boots, for example, introduced its first business apprenticeship programme for A-level leavers this summer, offering 20 18-month placements at its Nottingham head office in areas such as HR, supply chain, marketing, finance and IT.
 
All of the ‘big four’ accountancy and professional services firms now also run school leaver programmes, with Ernst & Young, for instance, launching a new initiative only last week.
 
The company said its five-year training scheme was developed because of a “growing demand from students and parents alike for an alternative to the traditional university career path”. While working in salaried positions at E&Y’s UK offices, successful candidates will study for a professional accountancy qualification and become certified before their graduate counterparts.
 
KPMG likewise unveiled programmes at two universities earlier this year with places for up to 100 students – an intake that it hopes will grow to provide half of its graduate supply within a few years. The move means that the firm will hire students at 18 and support them through university while they study for a degree that it has helped to shape.
 
So what impact is this new trend likely to have on both companies and candidates?
 
Psychological contracts at work
 
For individual employees, there is an often implicit ‘psychological contract’ with their employer, which relates to how attached they are to an organisation.
 
This concept is usually applied when it comes to retaining talent, but is equally important in attracting and acquiring it. The relationship between the two starts from before first contact, as soon as a potential employee considers the organisation to be a viable employer in fact.
 
There are four broad ways in which someone can be attached to an organisation. These are:
 
Vocational – a connection to the nature of the work itself
Operational – a connection to the way the organisation works and what it stands for
Relational – a connection to co-workers, customers and the like
Transactional – connection to explicit terms and conditions (salary, working conditions etc)
 
So attracting A-level students at such an early stage in their career is likely to lead to a transactional attachment (“I’ll get my tuition fees paid for and I’ll have a job at the end of it that pays well”), with possibly some influence from the vocational sphere.
 
But the more levels of attachment that an employee develops, the more likely they are to stay with their employer. As a result, this initial transactional relationship can be a useful way for employers to start influencing retention.
 
There are many positives for companies adopting this approach. For example, they can ensure that they acquire talent early, which offers them competitive advantage, and then ‘shape’ undergraduates to be a good ‘fit’ for the organisation.
 
But employers also need to consider the behavioural and psychological changes that individuals go through between the ages of 18 and 21 and ensure that they are still motivated by the same kind of work and company that they used to be upon leaving university.
 
Can you measure future success at 18?
 
Companies would also be advised to consider whether A-level results are a good enough measure to judge how successful an individual will be at work. Many students flourish at university when they have a chance to study independently of school and parents and to motivate themselves. These individuals would, undoubtedly, be an asset in the workplace.
 
Some observers also believe that sponsoring A-level candidates to take degrees could encourage greater diversity within the job applicant pool. Because high tuition fees are likely to put off more young people from low-income households from going to university, they could well be interested in an alternative route into further education.
 
So how can employers ensure that they create a solid psychological contract and keep individuals engaged?
 
Firstly, they need to work on the relational and operational elements of the deal. At a relational level, companies should have regular contact with individuals to keep them up-to-date with company developments and ensure that they feel part of the wider community.
 
Online communities should also be established so that individuals at different universities can keep in touch and communicate with each other about their roles. Such activity helps to establish relationships and sentiment both for the company and the people who work for it.
 
Where possible, a mentoring system should be established for the duration of the course of study. This involves a senior team member keeping in touch and supporting individuals in handling any pressure and stress that their course may generate for them.
 
At an operational level, employers should also ensure that undergraduates are invited to attend social events and, where possible, spend time in the company’s offices, working alongside the team in order to gain a sense of how things work and how they would fit in.
 
Finally, employers should give careful consideration to how they approach undergraduate and post-graduate recruitment in order to ensure that they have a dedicated, talented, motivated and hardworking graduate pool.
 
If this situation is not handled correctly and individuals do not remain connected to the organisation, they will find that they have invested time and money in people who will quickly be lost to the competition.