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Graduate programmes: secrets to success

Graduate programmes: secrets to success

Every manager within the IT industry has faced and will continue to face the ongoing issue concerning the availability and retention of skilled IT professionals

Every manager within the IT industry has faced and will continue to face the ongoing issue concerning the availability and retention of skilled IT professionals. Typically, whilst trying to resolve the resourcing issue, many organisations consider hiring graduate IT students. Not surprisingly, many managers have strong opinions on the success, or otherwise, of such programmes. Only recently, one company bitterly complained that of an intake of more than 12 IT graduates, only one remained six months later. Conversely, another company known to me conducts a very successful graduate programme and has placed more than 50 graduates in the past five years. Since the programme started, all but two still remain with the company and many have since taken up senior positions internally.

When a company runs into problems with IT graduates, the causes are variously labelled as the unrealistic expectations of the graduates, inappropriate tertiary courses or the attraction of overseas positions. Since the dotcom implosion, it is doubtful whether too many New Zealanders are finding a home in Silicon Valley.

However, the other two issues remain.

Graduate programmes are a vital source of future IT professionals and a number of basic principles can be adopted by a company to increase the chances of success. If these points are addressed both before the programme starts and throughout the life of the programme, there is every expectation that the graduates you hire will be satisfied with their roles and prospects, demonstrating this with loyalty and commitment.

1. Clearly determine what type of work the new recruits will undertake, both on appointment and in the long term.

While this may appear elementary, there are many instances where companies have simply recruited those with the highest academic results only to find that the graduates are simply not satisfied with the work they have been assigned.

A job definition can assist in determining what type of graduate is appropriate. Tertiary IT courses can be quite specific in their focus. Some have a strong academic focus while others have a more commercial or technical orientation. To find out what courses would best suit your company’s needs talk to the institute’s graduate employment office.

There are also many positions that may be suitable for someone other than a university graduate. TAFE-based courses at the diploma level provide excellent training for many roles within any IT department and vendor-certified graduates are in many respects still the best source of recruits for specific technical areas.

2. Supply material about the company, the IT department and the graduate programme to each candidate before the interview.

The selection process and panel should be carefully thought through. Aspiring graduates frequently know little about the company and probably less about the opportunities, demands and technical platforms associated with your industry.

By supplying information to the candidate prior to any interview it allows for a greater degree of intelligent interaction between the parties. It can also assist in screening out any candidates who may decide from reading the material that they are not interested in the work that you have on offer. More importantly, however, it allows you to thoroughly question the candidate on the issues contained in the material. They will have no excuse for not having read the material and considering its relevance to their aspirations.

3. Use the job interview to thoroughly screen candidates.

Graduate résumés can appear so similar it is often hard to rank candidates. The differentiating factor for many graduates is their experience on the major project that they undertake in their final year. Be sure to ask questions about that project. How many were in the team? What role did they play? What conflicts arose between members and how were they resolved? What technical challenges became apparent? You will be surprised by the answers. Team leaders can emerge, conflict resolution strategies evolve, and solid performers who persist where others have slipped away are identified.

4. Consider having a former graduate entrant on the recruitment panel.

While the managerial and HR staff will know what behavioural-based questions to pose, the experiences of a former graduate can often generate questions that are quite overlooked by management. Cultural and teaming issues, concerns about management expectations and how to address them are often real concerns to newly appointed graduates. An applicant’s response to these issues when raised can indicate whether or not they are suited to your environment.

5. Conduct personality profiles on the short-listed candidates.

Personality and IQ tests are generally expensive and often very specific in their objectives and outcomes. However, there is no doubt about the value of these tests if applied appropriately.

These tests are typically best used to reinforce interpretations or highlight certain characteristics of the short-listed group of candidates rather than to screen out candidates at the beginning of the selection process. In other words, they can be a great aid to selection in conjunction with the other standard assessment tools, not as an alternative.

Which test or tests to use is another question best left to the experts. However, consideration should be given to personality profiling rather than specific IQ or technical aptitude tests, as many of the qualities revealed using the latter tests can be identified by skilled interviewing and reviewing the candidate’s academic results.

6. Develop a job rotation programme of work experience.

All graduates and new recruits to the workforce require the opportunity to experience different aspects of the profession they have chosen. Graduate programmes that offer such an opportunity serve a number of purposes. They provide specific grounding in a number of areas which the graduate may need to understand and manage at a later period of their career. It also tests the assumptions that graduates may have had of a particular area. There is nothing worse than placing a graduate in an area where their expectations do not conform to reality.

A rotational programme also demonstrates a real commitment by the employer to find the most appropriate position for each of their new recruits.

7. Appoint a mentor for each graduate.

In their first year of work, most graduates need to call upon the advice of senior staff from time to time. Issues generally centre around how to discuss their current role with management, how to gain feedback or ask for explanations over some perceived performance issues.

The appointment of a mentor, who is typically a senior staff member and not part of the graduate’s direct reporting structure, gives the graduate the opportunity to seek advice and test the water before either confronting management or simply bottling it up and quite possibly leaving.

8. Regularly review graduate performance and continue to determine which aspect of IT interests them the most.

It goes without saying that all staff need frequent performance reviews and constant reinforcement of their skills and achievements. Even more so with graduates who have just entered the work force.

During their tertiary course students are constantly reminded how important their newly developed skills are and that as graduates they form an elite within the workforce with respect to new technologies and innovations.

The workplace is rather different to these perceptions and as they confront real work experiences they need to be managed through this occasionally difficult process. Frequent performance reviews and reinforcement can reduce many of the problems.

9. If the intake is large enough, bring the group together two or three times a year to develop team spirit and a supportive environment.

All of the above issues concerning workplace experience can be quite daunting for a new graduate. They want to feel that they are doing a meaningful job, they want to work on projects of significance to the company, they want to progress and generally they want to be measured against their peers.

If the graduate team is large enough (an intake of five graduates a year would be recommended as a minimum), then foster a sense of loyalty to “the graduate year of …”, such that each graduate identifies with that particular intake. They will test themselves against one another as promotions are made and form a group within the organisation where they can discuss their experiences, problems and genuinely help one another.

Formal sessions two or three times a year where they are trained in subjects not immediately required in their current role is an ideal way of fostering group loyalty and reinforcing the organisation’s commitment to their long-term development.

The above suggestions do not constitute a total graduate programme but are more an indication as to why some graduate programs are successful and others are not.

Don Smith is managing director of Woodbine Associates, specialists in IT recruitment. Smith can be contacted on 0-9-363 3324, or email: DonSmith@xtra.co.nz. For further information visit www.woodbinenz.com.

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