Prize catch – the fight for top graduates

Free massages, cups of coffee and photocopying vouchers are just some of the tactics the Big Four are employing on campuses around the UK to attract the brightest graduates.

The heat is on for the Big Four as the economic downturn has swung around and work is positively booming at accountancy firms. But filling the growing number of vacancies is not proving easy.

Firms have had to work hard over the past year to put their brand in the forefront of graduates’ minds. It marks a dramatic shift from two years ago, when the firms had to drastically cut the number of graduate places as the dip in the economy resulted in a significant drop in assignments for the firms.

At the time, some graduate offers were either put on hold, or simply withdrawn. The experience would have left a sour taste in the mouths of many students. And the knock-on effect of reputational damage shouldn’t be underestimated.

This goes some of the way to explaining why firms, particularly the Big Four, have adopted several innovative marketing strategies to get the finest minds on board.

And the news that fewer final year students are expected to enter the graduate jobs market this year than at any time in the last 10 years, according to the UK Graduate Careers Survey 2004 compiled by High Fliers Research, means they’ve got their work cut out.

Graduate recruitment managers agree there is a battle for the best. ‘It’s what we would describe as a recruitment war for talent if you’re looking for the best,’ says Sarah Shillingford, graduate recruitment partner at Deloitte.

The urgency to fill the vacancies, says Greg Weido, manager of permanent recruitment at Robert Half, is apparent in the number and size of advertisements that the Big Four are taking out in various publications. ‘It’s an indication of the economic conditions and urgent demand,’ Weido adds.

Deloitte has increased its graduate intake for this year by 180 places taking it to 800. Ernst & Young, the smallest of the Big Four, has fleshed out its intake from 250 vacancies last year to around 400 this year.

Indeed, the battle has got so tough that both KPMG and Deloitte have turned their sights on a novel approach to hiring graduates initiated by Reed Graduates, namely speed recruiting.

It’s a fresh take on the speed dating phenomenon that has swept the country. ‘We decided to participate in the Reed Graduates speed recruiting because it’s an interesting opportunity to participate in something new,’ says Shillingford.

Reed designed the approach because hundreds of places on graduate schemes remain unfilled.

But rival firms view speed recruiting with great cynicism. Charles MacLeod, director of recruitment at Pricewaterhouse-Coopers says: ‘We see it as a last resort. We don’t need to take desperate measures. We’ve had an extremely innovative year and have frightened the life out of our rivals. We’ve been stealing a march on the other three (Big Four) firms.’

Indeed, PwC, the UK’s largest accountancy firm, is offering 900 graduate places this year, and has already filled almost 90% of places.

MacLeod says this year the firm decided to do things differently, by way of building a presence on campuses at various stages in the year as well as turning up for the milk rounds and usual career fairs in the autumn.

‘We went out in January and February when others didn’t. We projected our logo onto buildings, such as Bristol University. We’ve been offering free cups of coffee, free photocopying vouchers, free massages. We’ve sponsored barbeques and champagne parties,’ enthuses MacLeod.

He acknowledges that the freebies won’t be the clincher, but ‘it puts the name in someone’s mind when they might not be aware of it’.

To increase the reach of its brand, KPMG last year launched its ‘pod’ – a ‘mini millennium dome’ – because it found it wasn’t able to get to as many graduates as it wanted.

Paloma Alos, national marketing manager at KPMG, says: ‘We went to 19 universities in five weeks with the pod last year. It’s more informal and open all day. Last year we saw 6,000 students, compared with 2,000 the year before.’

Anna Coutts-Donald, corporate tax assistant, who joined KPMG on a graduate training scheme a year ago, is an example of how effective a marketing campaign can be.

‘KPMG had a huge presence at Bristol University right from my second year. I was in the debating society, which they sponsored. They hooked me in that way,’ she says.

But, she explains, it was ultimately only after getting to know the firm, its culture and partners, that Coutts-Donald decided to take up KPMG’s offer.

‘KPMG was friendly and the partners seemed very approachable. I had offers from other firms, but I chose KPMG because of its culture,’ she explains.

Ultimately, this is the only way the Big Four can differentiate themselves, as they all offer similarly high salaries and a broad range of generous benefits and training contracts.

But the Big Four don’t just have to compete against each other. The changing nature of firms’ business structure, such as the birth of the consolidators, means that there’s a lot more competition for graduates.

Top 10 firm Smith & Williamson believes its incorporated business structure gives it the upper hand in recruiting graduates.

Giles Murphy, SW’s head of assurance and business services, says: ‘We’ve seen improvement in the quality of graduates that come to us for various reasons. We can differentiate ourselves because of our business structure and we don’t pigeonhole graduates right from the start.’

With the average student debt now reaching £12,180 according to a study by NatWest, graduates know they could do worse than enter a well-paid profession with excellent training development and career opportunities.

And if firms can afford to continue rubbing graduates’ backs throughout the year then it just might pay off on graduation day.

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