Low-grade recruiters blamed for job gaps

June 16, 1995

Human resources managers blame shortfalls on bad students but they are at fault too, writes Simon Targett. "You would be mortified at the sheer ignorance of some of the recruiters at really top-notch companies."

The voice of Peter Johnston, human resources manager at Mobil Oil, rises to a high pitch of desperation as he recalls the questions of some of the managers charged with recruiting new graduates for fast-track training schemes.

Invited to participate in a national recruitment seminar, they asked basic questions, like "what is a milkround?" and "where are the careers services?". Mr Johnston's alarm is enough to suggest that all is not quiet on the recruitment front.

In recent years, recruiters have become fond of explaining the bizarre difficulty of filling vacancies at a time of huge graduate numbers by pointing to the poor quality of the students.

According to a survey of blue chip companies by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, some 20 per cent reported a shortfall in recruitment last year, including supposedly sought-after marketing and management businesses. Employers told the AGR that the quality of the applicants was "not sufficiently high".

But increasingly, recruiters are now asking questions not only of the fresh-faced graduates, but also of their fellow recruiters.

Later this month, some of the biggest graduate recruiters in the country are gathering to discuss whether the whole recruitment business is "fit for the future".

There is anxiety that not all recruiters are competent, and that graduates are getting a poor return for all the effort they put into application after application.

Martin Duffell, head of management recruitment at Unilever, which takes around 80 graduates each year, shares the concern over recruiter quality, observing that many recruitment departments are comprised of "young people, whose experience is not particularly relevant to human resources management, and who have no great expectation of staying long in recruiting".

He concludes "recruiting is becoming a little more amateur", at least in some companies.

To a large degree, the quality deficit is explained by the recession. In the early 1990s, several companies cut back on graduate recruitment and reduced their recruitment departments. Ford, ICI and BP were among them. As a result, these companies lost some of their most experienced recruiters.

John Simpson, formerly at ICI, went to Imperial College London as chief careers adviser.

The number one recruiter at Lloyd's Bank, Maggie Zownir, started her own recruitment agency, NB Selection. Many companies, stripped of their own recruitment departments, now commission specialist agencies to oversee graduate recruitment.

As well as the quality factor, some recruiters are concerned about growing evidence of unprofessional conduct. Mr Johnston is scathing of the so-called "exploding offer" where applicants are offered "a golden hello" linked to a requirement to accept within a few days, often by return of post.

This is contrary to all the informal codes of practice that govern the behaviour of recruiters, yet he claims that this "unprofessional and unacceptable" activity is practised "by some amazingly household names".

Nigel Llewelyn, recruitment partner at Touche Ross, notes that the exploding offer is "starting to rear its ugly head again". This is partly why a new code of practice for graduate recruiters is being drawn up by the AGR, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, and the National Union of Students.

But if graduate recruiters are raising questions about quality and professionalism, they are endorsing the growing practice of targeting institutions and even individual students.

Mr Johnston, whose company Mobil Oil visits 18 universities, says that targeting is very much a fact of life, necessitated by the huge quantity of applicants, which at some companies is over 100 for every vacancy.

Mr Llewelyn says Touche Ross would be "mad" to target the lesser universities when over 70 per cent of their trainees come from around a dozen institutions.

Some university careers advisers are worried about this trend, noting that targeting is becoming ever more sophisticated, with individual undergraduates receiving direct mailshots and even email messages.

Margaret Wallis, the AGCAS chairman, says that blue chip companies are being encouraged to send recruitment literature to all institutions, even if they do not conduct a milkround everywhere.

But it could be that this ever more exclusive targeting strategy, more than the quality deficit and unprofessionalism, are the real reasons that can help explain why recruiters are missing so many employable graduates.

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