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Graduate Advantage's mission to boost employability

Graduate Advantage

26 May 2016

Graduate employability is central to the Higher Education (HE) agenda and is a significant feature in the new white paper on HE. It’s also the focus of two independent reviews led by Sir William Wakeham and Sir Nigel Shadbolt recently commissioned by the government to address the worryingly high rates of unemployment in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates.

 Whilst focused on specific subjects the emphasis on gaining a better understanding of the skills and requirements of employers and developing them in graduates at the levels expected, can resonate across all degree subjects. What’s clear is that higher education must work closely with the professions and industry to ensure our students can offer long-term value in the workplace.

Many universities are stepping up to the challenge of working with employers to prepare the graduates of tomorrow  and many recognise that immersing students and graduates in a real workplace is one of the best ways for them to understand and develop the essential skills they need to succeed.

 With more than 90% of the UK’s leading graduate employers now offering paid work experience and almost all of them working with local university careers services (High Fliers report 2016) the focus is now shifting to how universities can get small and medium sizes enterprises (SMEs) more involved.

There is a tendency for SMEs to undervalue the potential contribution of graduates to an organisation and for graduates to under estimate the benefits and opportunity working in an SME can bring. Their preconceptions make the work of organisations such as West Midlands based Graduate Advantage (GA) so critical. Established in 2003, conceived and led by Aston University, Graduate Advantage is the UK’s longest running and largest Higher Education Institution Partnership of its kind. Engaging with smaller business, it works to increase the amount of graduate employers within the region through the provision of impactful, graduate internships.

 Over the last decade, Graduate Advantage has had a significant impact on the region, due to the successful collaboration of West Midlands based universities who can offer a real choice and diversity of candidates. The breadth of skills they can offer plus their ability to share market and sector knowledge, provides a full-package of support to small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

 To date Graduate Advantage has helped to launch the careers of over 4,000 graduates in the West Midlands. With a specialism of supporting SMEs its purpose is to transform the attitudes of organisations towards graduate employment and of graduates toward working within small, high growth businesses. Nicola Harrold, Marketing Director at Lion Picture Framing Supplies recently highlighted the challenges, describing GA as, “a dating agency…you wouldn’t ever look for a company like us, you wouldn’t even know we existed”. SMEs and graduates alike find it hard to promote themselves to stand out amongst the big brands and their peers which makes facilitating these relationships, providing knowledge and access on both sides so important to what would otherwise remain hidden markets.

 The project has generated a culture of graduate employment within small, high growth businesses. According to recent post internship feedback, 96% of companies (134) are willing to recruit a graduate again after their experience with the project. Feedback from graduates shows 60% of those placed through Graduate Advantage are now considering the region and smaller businesses when reviewing their career options. Graduate Charlie Michael Waclaw Zawadzki recognised the benefits of working within an SME after his internship as Qualifications Development Officer with Industry Qualifications (IQ) saying “Working in a small company offered me genuine progression in the organisation, opportunities to represent the organisation externally and undertake my own projects as well as make recommendations to the organisation for future projects.”

 The Shadbolt and Wakeman reviews highlight the need for stronger links to industry and this is just one example of the great work that can and is being done by universities with a collaborative and proactive approach. SMEs account for at least 99% of the businesses in every main industry sector, making them vital to the UK economy, the job-hunting graduate and the HE agenda. The scale of hidden opportunity within SMEs screams for the need of a service such as Graduate Advantage as the essential link between employer and graduate, yet this is only the tip of the iceberg.