Who’s choosing who? – what top graduates expect from HR

by 18 Feb 2010

Has the global financial crisis changed the attitudes of Australia’s top graduates? Amal Awad finds out

Two years ago, a Graduate Careers Australia survey found that more than 95 per cent of university stu dents cited “good training and opportunities” as a primary factor in finding future employment. In a rapidly changing environment, where technology is king and the global economy is still feeling the aftershocks of the financial crisis, little has changed. Companies may well find they increasingly have to keep up with the demands of an ambitious Generation Y in search of flexible and nur turing workplaces.

And top graduates, as with employers, have clear goals: to excel by working with the finest minds, in organisations with solid reputations. Flexibility, training and opportuni ties for growth are the most attractive qualities.

This may all sound like the catchcry of a restless genera tion, but it’s a big world filled with opportunities, and grad uates are actively seeking them out in the firms they consider.

For Mallesons Stephen Jaques graduate lawyer Emma Dunlop, such development was her primary concern when applying: “Finding a firm that would give me the best pos sible training and opportunities, and which also had a friendly and collaborative attitude,” she says is what she sought.

Dunlop emerged with first-class honours in Arts/Law, and a University Medal for Arts, from the University of Sydney (USYD). Like many, Dunlop knew what she was looking for in a future employer, even if some things came down to simple preference. In her case, it was an interest in international law and arbitration, so she looked for firms with Asian links.

“My choices were also influenced by the feedback that I received from friends who were already in the workforce.”

Dunlop applied for three clerkships, saying most law students view the clerkship selection process “as the first step to an employment offer”.

It’s a similar story for fellow USYD graduate Rohen Sood, who graduated with three majors and first-class hon ours in engineering and commerce.

“The primary issue for me when looking for a job was the opportunities that came along with it. To elaborate on this, things like a brand name firm, global network, and their willingness to invest in upskilling me were crucial.”

Sood, who joins IBM as a project co-ordinator, says that at this point remuneration isn’t the most important fac tor. He applied for about 10 roles and the “primary lure of these firms” was the possibilities that lay within.

“I think this is what most people look for – a stepping stone that will help them achieve their career goals.”

David Burburan, a software engineer at Australian- based software company Altium, says he looked to repu tation as well as benefits when he went on the hunt.

Burburan, who graduated with a software engineer ing/maths degree with first class honours from UNSW, admits his central concern in looking for a job was simply to find one, because he could afford to look around and be more selective later. But he still considered the com pany’s offerings, including working conditions and salary.

“Once I’m in a company for a while these [factors] fade a little and in their place the most important would be the company’s goals and the people I work with,” says Bur buran.

Saadiya Choudhury, another USYD alumnus, completed a Bachelor of Arts, receiving honours in Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management. She was already famil iar with her field but finding suitable employment still proved arduous.

“I had significant HR experience before taking on this graduate role, so I was looking for something that could challenge me and let me think outside of the box.”

Applying for 10 to 15 jobs, Choudhury targeted com panies that offered structured graduate programs, partic ularly ones with rotations within the company.

“I feel that this gives you a better idea of how the com pany deals with issues across business divisions. It also gives you the opportunity to meet lots of people and learn a lot more,” she explains.

Choudhury found the right opportunity at Airservices Australia, where her current role is Human Resource Advi sor, following a year in their graduate program.

“Because of my tertiary background, I was really keen on getting into a company that had a rotation in Industrial Rela tions or Human Resources,” she adds. “It also had to be with a company that had a good reputation in terms of staff learning and development and employee satisfaction rates.”

Has the GFC affected top graduates’ outlooks?

In terms of the muted economic environment, only some graduates say it had an impact on their application process.

Dunlop acknowledges “nervousness amongst law stu dents” that clerkships would not end with offers, but says it didn’t alter her approach to the clerkship process.

Sood believes the crisis had a significant impact on grad uates, saying he applied to more companies than he would have in more stable times.

“A lot of firms that came to campus to recruit in the pre vious years did not even show up [in 2009] … The number of roles on offer seemed lower, making the competition tougher.”

For independent business consultant David Thornton, an excess of “small, non-routine tasks” postponed because of recruitment freezes and the high cost of consultancy provided an “an ideal opportunity to get a foot in the door with new work if one was prepared to be “competitively priced” and “take a risk with work flow”.

The recent graduate of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM, UNSW) says he hoped his MBA would fuel new business ventures. As such, despite an impressive resume, he decided against applying for jobs.

“I just placed myself in the environment that I wanted to explore,” he says, and was soon engaged by CSIRO on a consultancy basis.

However, Thornton says for full-time employment, he would look at a company’s “flexibility and support” in relation to managing his workload, lifestyle and commit ments, “rather than doggedly following corporate routines which can lead to more frustration and inefficiency”.

He’s certainly not alone in this thinking, with Choud hury saying work/life balance also factors into whether you remain with an employer.

“Clear succession planning and opportunities to net work with others across the organisation,” are factors she also advocates. “The opportunity to support further study is also important in wanting to stay with a company.”

Sood says he expects an employer to invest in his future and offer opportunities beneficial to his own and his com pany’s productivity.

“For example, [I would target] a company that will pro vide accredited training such as paying for MBAs or other courses that improve my marketability both internally within the organisation as well as externally,” he says.

Graduates emphasise the importance of a nurturing pro fessional environment, where their careers are not fixed in terms of progression.

“It’s a very Generation Y thing to say, but I think that having the flexibility to change the direction of your career from within a company is very important,” says Dunlop. “This may involve training in a new specialty, or working in a different country. What is important is that your career trajectory doesn’t appear to be fixed from the outset.”

What top graduates expect from HR:

1. Support (transitional and administrative)

2. Transparency

3. Sound processes

4. Timely responses

5. Personal contacts for graduates

Who's interviewing who?

While graduates cite numerous sources for identifying suitable employers, they, too, are paying attention in the recruitment process. The interview, in particular, offers a good indication of a company's culture and environment.

David Burburan, a software engineer at Altium, says his interview surprised him. "One of the things that Altium did, which quite impressed me, was that they spent just as much time trying to sell the company's vision to me as they spent testing me."

Saadiya Choudhury says previous recruitment experience served her well because she understood what comprised sound practice.

"In the interviews I participated in, I found the process to be of a high quality. I think companies generally invest a lot in graduates so they finetune the process to get the best," she says.

However, Rohen Sood admits he had a misconceived impression of what the interview process involved. "I envisioned the clichéd dramatic interview with a panel of three sitting behind a steel table in a dimly lit room with a hanging lampshade while I sat in a chair three feet away from the table - exposed in the middle of the room," he says, adding that his first interview, a one-on-one, was actually "quite amicable".

Meanwhile, Emma Dunlop approaches interviews as "a two-way street, with both parties deciding whether they would be happy working with each other".

Attracting top graduates to your firm

Be accessible - the "elitist vibe" can be unappealing, says Rohen Sood.

Offer programs that invest in graduates' futures - "Something that lets us know that this company wants me to succeed, and they have a system in place for me to do so," adds Sood.

Emphasise corporate fit - "Not every firm will be ideal for all graduates as each one has a different philosophy and culture," Sood notes.

Streamline application processes for time-strapped honours students, suggests Saadiya Choudhury.

Timeliness - avoid confusing candidates with complex timelines, and snap up top graduates before others can, Choudhury also advises.

Non-monetary rewards - "Ask them what simple non-monetary conditions would make them enjoy their work more," suggests David Thornton. "For example, longer leave, flexi-hours, work-at-home days, corporate laptop and phone, time to work on their 'own' projects that might be related to the community or environment or charity etc."

Fairness - "To be tough on candidates, first be tough on yourself," says David Burburan. "Then you can approach top candidates with the real value of what you offer, and in turn, challenge them thoroughly. If you both pass, you will earn respect for each other."

Openness, flexibility, and a down-to-earth approach - Emma Dunlop says these three characteristics are "refreshing to graduates who are interviewing at numerous firms".

The Thomson Reuters philosophy - identifying future leaders

Leading organisations have long been identifying future leaders, attracting top graduates into their workplaces. However, whether it's a stringent recruitment process or personality tests, finding the right fit for a company's culture doesn't begin with a candidate's resume.

"As a business, we look for more than just a solid academic transcript and a few degrees. We find that the most successful graduates are those who have broader interests, like participation in community groups or work experience gathered while studying," says Riaz Ajam, Human Resources Business Partner at Thomson Reuters. "Such individuals are often more work-ready and tend to have the smarts we need."

Ajam says it's important for graduates to have the ability to apply the theory they have learnt to practical work situations.

"So when we are selecting graduates, we employ a number of assessment tools such as team-building exercises, work preference profiling, role plays, presentations skills and markets examinations," he says.

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