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Are graduate schemes and apprenticeships still taking place in the pandemic?

With reports suggesting graduate schemes have been delayed and work placements have been cancelled, entry-level recruitment still remains vital for some employers – even during a pandemic. Ashleigh Webber reports

This year has been tough for all jobseekers, but especially graduates and school leavers.

Competition for graduate jobs hit a 10-year high in August and an average of 93 applications per graduate job were received in July, according to job search engine Adzuna and careers website Bright Network.

Reports also emerged about once prolific graduate recruiters having to abandon or drastically reduce their graduate intake or internship programmes. Accountancy firm KPMG has reportedly vowed to pay for 40 graduates’ master’s degrees if they defer their placement to 2021, significantly delaying the start of their careers, while Deloitte scrapped its summer internship programme, instead offering candidates a place on an online training programme and a £500 “goodwill” payment.

Talent pipeline

A survey of 179 members of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) in May identified a 23% reduction in student and graduate recruitment for 2020. Organisations each planned to recruit 12% fewer graduates and offer 40% fewer placements and internships than last year.

But, while the figures seem to illustrate a barren jobs market, the reality is isn’t as dire some may think.

“For graduates who had a job lined up before COVID hit, our evidence shows most employers have stuck with the offers they’ve made,” suggests Stephen Isherwood chief executive of the ISE.

“Employers with a long history of recruiting students know that if you don’t keep hiring through a recession, when the upturn comes you’ll have a real talent shortage. In three years’ time, firms will need qualified lawyers or accountants. Organisations will need people moving into junior manager positions.”

Graduate recruitment in the legal sector

With many schemes not beginning until October, firms have had time to adjust them for the socially-distanced workplace and to consider where costs can be cut, rather than scrap them completely.

The legal sector has seen only a 4% drop in graduate hiring intentions, the ISE found. Comparatively, it recorded a 45% reduction in graduate recruitment in construction.

Clifford Chance is one of the law firms continuing to offer its graduate schemes this year. Its summer schemes have taken place virtually, with a view towards offering two days of in-person learning later this year.

Future of the our firm

Yasmina Kone, the firm’s graduate recruitment specialist, says: “Our graduate hires are the future of our firm, which is why we invest so heavily in recruiting and developing trainees. We look for candidates with potential – with hunger, drive, creativity, agility of thinking and enthusiasm. The rest can be taught, and we offer world-class training to support our trainees’ professional development.”

As well as its summer schemes, Clifford Chance offers a traditional training contract and its ‘IGNITE’ tech-focused training scheme. Around 90 trainees are welcomed into the firm every year, who rotate through four practice areas before qualifying as solicitors.

This year the firm launched a global virtual internships programme which offered 20 hours of modular content that can be accessed and completed when and where they wish.

Remote internships

“This is all focused on our strategy to break down barriers to access the profession and democratise access to opportunity,” says Kone.

The firm has also continued to offer its ‘LIFT’ programme, which sees it partner with other organisations and core Clifford Chance business teams to offer paid summer internships to future trainees. Some 30 trainees took part in the scheme this year.

“All LIFT internships have been conducted remotely, which has worked well and still been a valuable experience for both the participating organisations and our future trainees,” says Kone.

Intrinsic to the company

Employers in other sectors have also continued to run their entry-level schemes in innovative ways.

Specialist life sciences, communications and technology recruitment firm X4 Group is still expecting to onboard around 45 trainees by the end of October. The company recently moved into a new office with a large events space, which will now be turned into a “training hub” to allow new entrants to learn while following social distancing guidance.

Chief executive Peter Rabey says: “Everyone in leadership has started their careers as a graduate trainee and we feel it is intrinsic to the company we want to be.

“Although there are a few things we’ve had to change over the past couple of months, changing our entire ethos around how we hire and train isn’t needed to be successful in the post-lockdown market.”

The right thing to do

And it is not only graduate recruitment that appears to be holding up during the pandemic. Although the ISE’s survey found 32% of its membership planned to take on fewer school leavers and apprentices, advertising agency Ogilvy UK believes continuing its apprenticeship programmes is more important than ever. It has hired, or plans to hire, 30 apprentices in 2020 and early 2021 – up from eight in 2018.

Head of learning and development Gavin Sutton says: “Given the funding we have invested in to the apprenticeship levy pot, it would be a real miss as a business to not take advantage of this. It is also the right thing to do as a responsible and forward thinking business; to keep opportunities open to people starting their careers.”

But graduates and other entry-level new starters may find working from home a challenge, especially if their training programme requires a lot of hands-on experience rather than academic learning.

Company culture

The ISE’s Isherwood says: “If you’re, for example, working at one of the big accountancy firms, a lot of the initial phases of work are about getting your professional qualification – that’s relatively straightforward as that’s happening online.

“But the challenge is understanding the culture – when you start a new job you buy in to a culture and get a feel for it by being in the office and meeting people. That’s not really happening at the moment.”

Isherwood suggests setting up online networking groups for graduate cohorts, or running virtual social events.

Support for new colleagues

“I think there will be more support than ever. We’re so conscious about people feeling isolated at home – particularly new joiners with little experience – so there might be more support and one-to-one opportunities with managers,” he adds.

X4 Group’s Rabey has been offering trainees the ability to visit the office before they accept a position at the firm, even though it is much quieter than usual.

“At least half of the graduates who have come in have requested to come into the space to see where they would be working, see what it feels like and get a sense of what their colleagues and teams would be like. I’ve been nicely surprised that a lot of people still carry great weight on the office culture,” he says.

Looking forward

While the optimism about graduate recruitment at the organisations we spoke to is high, there is still the possibility of a “second peak” – which could be even more detrimental to job prospects for next year’s entry-level cohort.

Isherwood says this is a major concern for the ISE. “Going back to the last financial crash, the biggest drop in vacancies was seen in the second year. If the recession really carries on and businesses have to make further cutbacks, they may reconsider their graduate schemes for next year,” he says.

There’s little doubt that the technology being embraced in this ‘new normal’ of work has made some graduate schemes and placements possible this year. But with government grants and measures to stimulate the economic recovery gradually being withdrawn, some graduate recruiters may struggle to survive – the effects of which could be felt into next year’s graduate recruitment season.



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