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Are school leavers the new Graduates?

With the ever increasing cost of studying for a degree, A-level students are looking at a range of wider options when considering their next steps, overall University applications took a dip for 2013 start dates, although some of  this has been recovered for 2014 entry.  Whichever way you look at it, going to University is a big decision, many of the UK’s top students will think twice about it now that the debt they can expect to leave with in 2015 is over £50,000.  The competition for Graduate jobs therefore is increasingly fraught with tension, the top Grad jobs are still receiving upwards of 70 applications per position.

Some of the UK’s biggest Graduate employers are therefore responding to this shift, as a part of a wider talent strategy, to running school leaver programmes.  These typically invite students directly from A-Levels into a structured programme within the business, which usually runs in parallel to a Graduate programme.  Whilst these programmes ostensibly provide a fantastic opportunity to school leavers to get straight into work, often to complete a professional qualification, and circumnavigate the student debt problems associated with studying for a degree.

Here are a few of my thoughts on the challenges and considerations associated with these programmes:

What are the key benefits to running a programme of this sort?  As above, there is the beginning of a trend that fewer top A-Level students will go to university, so, finding these people early will be essential.  Increasingly within the talent market, there is recognition that the best people come from a range of different sources, having a school leavers programme allows you to capture people from a different route than the standard university milkround.  There are also benefits to ‘growing your own’ people; many of these programmes have excellent retention rates and, it’s a bit blunt, but they are cheaper.

What are the challenges?  There are a number of challenges to setting up this kind of programme, not least creating the infrastructure to train and develop a group of people with no commercial experience. 

You’ll need to consider:

How will you find them?  It is a challenge to get into this network of A-level students, unlike the relatively manageable list of universities in the UK, there are thousands of schools – one thing you’ll need to think about is, how do you start to tap into this huge network?  They don’t all necessarily have careers services/advisors that you can reach out to so you need to get creative if you want to pursue it.

How do you avoid the conflict of interest with School networks?  Teachers and school careers advisors often would recommend that their top students get a degree, how do you make your offering a clear and compelling alternative to university?  KPMG offer a professional qualification and a degree for their school leavers, whereas other programmes are more professional-qualification focussed. 

How will your school leavers interact with your Grads?  One aspect of running these programmes that you need to consider is, how will your Grads and your School Leavers interact?  Will their programmes be distinct or are they doing the same things?  You need to be prepared for potential tension between the two classes if the programmes are too similar.

Will your school leavers join the Graduate programme after three years or if not, what will happen to them?  You need to have a clear view on how the two programmes will interact and what your employees’ careers will look like at the end of the programme.

What will your programme look like and how will you train and develop your school leavers?  Most of these candidates will have no commercial experience and even less ‘life experience’ than your Graduate class, so you’ll need to have a structured, rigorous programme in place to help them get up to speed quickly and to feel supported and challenged within your business.

So, are school leavers the new Graduates?
Not yet, no.  But there is an ever-increasing trend towards engaging with top talent earlier and earlier in their education and, engaging school leavers is a great way to ensure a strong entry level pipeline for your business in the future.  With the numbers of Graduates dwindling in light of the restrictive fees to studying in the UK, and the increasing recognition that great people come from a range of backgrounds, businesses would do well to start considering where their entry level talent will come from in the next 10 years.