How Large Firms Fight For Talent

Posted by: Ekalavya Hansaj Updated: 22 April 2020

RECORD low unemployment and the intensifying war for talent has sharpened employers’ focus on graduate recruitment. Firms are designing their own schemes and looking beyond academic qualifications – and traditional graduate routes – to find the best fit for their business. Many are growing their graduate intake, despite Brexit uncertainty. “Graduate recruitment has often been one of the first costs

to be cut when times are tough,” says Shona Preston, director at Scottish recruitment consultancy HRC Recruitment. “But despite

the economic uncertainty over the past few years, businesses are still looking for good grades – in many cases, they’re actually increasing their annual intake.” Traditionally, a candidate’s degree and classification were significant determining factors in whether they were eligible for a graduate scheme.

“Now, it’s changed to be much more led by behaviors, personality, and candidates’ interests outside of their studies,” Preston explains. “So many young people are doing well academically that businesses need to find new ways of differentiating between them – and, in that respect, we’ve seen some organizations take name-blind or university- blind approaches to their graduate candidates.” One of the other biggest trends HRC has seen is the growth in small and medium-sized enterprises looking to employ candidates straight out of university.

“Partly, it’s because these kinds of businesses are proving more popular with graduates,” Preston says. “They can offer more flexibility to young people compared to many of their corporate counterparts. SMEs can also provide a less formal workplace and offer a better feel for what a

role will actually entail. Work-life balance is highly important for graduates today, as is the culture of the workplace.”

Accounting and business services firm PwC has a dedicated student recruitment team and has taken on 94 graduates so far in Scotland this year, up from 90 in 2018. While audit and accountancy roles continue to account for the most significant intake of graduates, technology roles are growing in prominence.

“Our assurance business still takes the most graduates, and they will begin working towards becoming chartered accountants,” says Claire Reid, head of assurance at PwC Scotland.

“However, there are more tech-focused roles emerging in the business, particularly in areas such as cybersecurity, data analytics, and technology risk. We envisage this trend continuing with more tech-focused student roles in the future.” Last year, PwC joined forces with the universities Edinburgh and St Andrews to launch Scotland’s first ever Data Science Graduate Apprenticeship. Backed by the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland, the program is designed to offer a new work-based learning route to a BSc data science degree and enrolled 17 students in its first year.

PwC said it had seen an unprecedented upsurge in applications for graduate roles, with no impact from Brexit. On the broader labor market, unemployment is at its lowest since 1974, though a slight slowing in growth in March may have reflected Brexit uncertainty.

Jumpstart is an Edinburgh- based specialist in research and development tax credits, a UK government tax incentive to encourage companies to invest in research and development. The firm developed its own sales apprenticeship program after struggling to find quality salespeople who were the right fit for the business.

“In my experience, skills can be learned; the experience can be accrued over time, but the personal qualities we value such as character, drive, and ambition are either built-in you or they’re not,” says Amy Palmer, inside sales manager at Jumpstart.

“We’d previously sourced people through external agencies, but the quality was mixed, and the turnover levels were high. We couldn’t find a sales apprenticeship program to answer our needs, so we developed our own, where we started by looking for people with the right personality who were keen to learn the ropes, often from scratch.”

Seventeen-year-old Emma Carroll responded to one of Jumpstart’s Facebook notices and joined the firm in March as an executive in its internal sales team. She had previously spent a year as a hairdressing apprentice, followed by a work placement at the City of Edinburgh Council.

“After applying for the role, Emma was very thorough in following up,” Palmer says. “She phoned, emailed, and texted numerous times, asking for updates, and looking for feedback. She was always polite and professional but also demonstrated real persistence and tenacity.”

Carroll adds: “As someone who left school with limited qualifications, I’m really pleased to have discovered this alternative route into developing a career within the R&D tax relief advisory sector. I feel I’m benefitting from the ongoing training and mentoring from my colleagues, which is helping me learn new skills and grow my confidence in the workplace. There’s also a clear path here for me to develop into a fully-fledged sales professional within the year.”

FTSE 250 recruitment group Hays finds that, regardless of qualifications, graduates with strong interpersonal skills continue to be in the highest demand, with technical and IT knowledge a significant advantage.

“This applies across all professions, including accountancy, sales, business management, and surveying, for example,” says Gill Fraser,

Hays senior manager for internal recruitment. “We’re less focused on the type of degree someone has and more interested in their communication skills, whether they can present confidently, or whether they have the ability to discuss current issues with a client coherently.

“Graduates also need to be able to adapt their core discipline to their environment. For example, a graduate looking for a procurement post should ideally have some commercial and sales knowledge. And the need for graduates to have a clear understanding of how new technology is affecting the financial services industry is vital.”

Fraser says the current challenge in Scotland is finding graduates who have relevant business experience. Hays runs internships for university students incorporating 12-month industrial placements and hopes to develop shorter internships in the future to help students on full-time academic courses increase their commercial awareness.

Siobhan Walker, 23, from Glasgow, joined Hays as a recruitment consultant in the West of Scotland after graduating in human resource management and marketing from the University of Strathclyde.

She had no previous business-to-business sales experience but was fast-tracked through Hays’ associate training program.

“The graduate job market in Scotland is highly competitive,” Walker says. “My experience post-graduation was that many organizations focused on whether you already had practical experience in the area, rather than appreciating the competencies and academic qualities graduates may bring, which can then be honed and developed.”

Hays plans to recruit eight graduates in the next six months across its five Scotland offices and says Brexit has not changed its clients’ recruitment plans. Diversity is a crucial focus for law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn, which is recruiting more graduates through its social mobility programs.

“It’s encouraging to see the efforts to reach out into our communities and broaden the profession beginning to produce results,”

says Yvonne Brady, Shepherd and Wedderburn’s head of diversity, development, and inclusion.

With the legal market changing faster than ever before, Brady says strong digital skills, resilience, commerciality, and an interest in developing client relationships are all key attributes.

As well as attending graduate recruitment fairs across Scotland, the firm is launching Insight Evenings, a new networking event specifically designed for first-year students. Brexit is not affecting application numbers or the career choices of graduates, Brady adds.

“We are not seeing Scottish graduates abandon Scottish traineeships to, for instance, seek opportunities on the European mainland,” Brady says. “At this stage, trainees are focused on getting good training and then, perhaps, planning their longer-term career aspirations when the outlook is more settled.” Accountancy firm Chiene + Tait runs a formal graduate scheme in its audit department and other training programs, including a payroll traineeship designed in-house. “Experienced and qualified payroll practitioners are in demand, and there isn’t enough supply to go around,” says managing partner Carol Flockhart, who joined the firm herself as a graduate in 1994. “So we instituted our own payroll traineeship, which combines on-the-job experience with a formal qualification.”

The firm also offers an audit apprenticeship through a scheme run by The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, Skills Development Scotland, and Robert Gordon University.

With ‘Industry 4.0’ driving demand for skills in tech-related areas, including data science and artificial intelligence, Flockhart acknowledges that technology is a growing element of the business advisory role.

“There’s an increasing focus on accountants being business advisors beyond the traditional compliance function,” she says. “It makes sense that tech skills are becoming ever- more important, because clients are using more tech, and they need their advisors to be able to offer authority, knowledge, and practical insights.”

Brexit hasn’t identifiably affected the firm’s graduate recruitment, and “we’re not expecting it to in the short- term,” Flockhart adds.

One of Chiene + Tait’s graduate recruits is Jessica Welsby, who joined the firm’s audit graduate scheme after graduating from Dundee University with a Bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance.

“I’ve worked through the firm’s chartered accountancy training program, covering experience with all sectors and industries, and I’ve also led client work,” Welsby explains.

She adds: “I’ve passed all my CA exams and am now exam-qualified. Once I’ve completed three years of practice experience in September, I’ll be term-qualified, meaning I’ll be officially recognized as being trained to work as a chartered accountant.”

Welsby will be flying out to Australia at the start of August to work with an Australian firm for three months. “It’s a superb opportunity and came about from Chiene + Tait’s membership of AGN International, an international association of accountancy firms,” Welsby says.

Offering work experience is one way for employers to access potential future talent beyond the graduate pipeline, and help young people get ready for the world of work.

Developing Young Workforce Perth & Kinross is a partnership between employers and education to help boost youth employment.

It has just launched its second annual #LearnAliving campaign, to encourage more local employers to offer school children valuable work experience opportunities in 2019.

Last year, 250 local employers joined the scheme, including Perthshire leisure resort Crieff Hydro, construction firm Hadden Group, hair and beauty specialist Charlie Taylor, waste management firm Binn Group and local restaurant, Tabla.

The #LearnAliving campaign aims to remove any doubts, barriers, or misconceptions about offering work placements, with minimal administration in the sign-up process.


An entrepreneur who chased success till it chased him. Founder at Quarterly Global. Father to Mayra Hansaj and Husband to Anjali Hansaj. Author of “The Criminal Wolf” and “Rise of the wolf”. 114 Days in a slumber haunts me yet.

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