It used to be commonplace for students to be sponsored through university. The most affluent students by far in my day were the medics who had contracted to join the army for a few years on graduation, and in return drew a junior officer’s pay for the six years of their training.
Less well-off but still comfortable were a raft of engineers, pharmacologists and geologists who were being paid for by companies that were obviously hoping those educated at their expense would stay with them for a long time. Some did, some didn’t – but those who left did so generally because their employer failed to offer them the career path they wanted.
It is an idea that has fallen out of fashion. Outside the financial sector, companies complain continually about the shortage of graduates and the dearth of young people today who take science-based and practical degrees as opposed to the near-useless education of media studies. But they do little or nothing to make a difference in the one way that most obviously would work – by providing help with the finance.
They remain surprisingly keen to send existing employees off to business school – where any imagination and originality in their management approach will be surgically removed – but reluctant to give bursaries to undergraduates and grow their own talent.
The short-sightedness of this approach was summed up by one large company which happily boasted that it has set up an office in Moscow to recruit Russian graduates in electrical engineering, taught them English and paid for them to move to the UK. It never entered the company’s head that it could get the staff it needed more cheaply by supporting a batch of students through university at home.
The time is surely right for a change – or rather to return to how things were 40 years ago. The massive rises in tuition fees will put anyone attending university under considerable financial pressure so there could be no better time for companies to re-enter the market. Instead of complaining about how the brightest and best all joinGoldman Sachs, non-financial companies have a golden opportunity to get people young and engage their interest in alternative careers. From the company’s perspective, bearing in mind how much they spend – and waste, when things (as they so often do) go wrong – on recruitment retention and training, it could turn out to be good value.
Indeed, the idea seems already to be catching on. Lloyds Banking Group, so often in the news for the wrong reasons, has this month stuck a tentative toe back in this water with a “scholars” programme to encourage those from low-income families to study at leading top academic and research universities. A pilot scheme for 15 people will be launched at the Bristol University this week after a similar exercise in Sheffield this month. Interestingly, it will provide much more than pure financial support, and will expect students to do some form of community service, but will not require them to join the bank on graduation.
The other point that too few companies focus on is the changing demographics of the workforce. A report to be published this week by Reform, the think-tank, reminds us that in the next five years the number of people over the age of 65 will increase by 1.4 million.
This represents an unprecedented loss of experience and knowledge from the workforce that is going to have to be replaced by significant recruitment at the younger end.
Part of the solution is self-evidently for companies to commit to growing their own talent for tomorrow.
Source: Anthony Hilton, Evening Standard, 28 June 2011