The decision to let English universities charge students up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees from next September sparked angry street protests this time last year. Early indications also suggest the move may have prompted some to reconsider their plans to participate in higher education.
According to figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) in October, the number of students applying for courses with a deadline of 15 October was down 0.8 per cent on last year.
Furthermore, there has been a nine per cent year-on-year drop in the total number of applicants opting for courses that need to be applied for by 15 January.
Taking these figures at face value, it would be reasonable to suggest that come next summer, there could be a marked rise in the number of school leavers looking for work, which could provide benefits to the channel.
It could be especially helpful to companies struggling to recruit high-quality sales, technical and administrative staff because of the economic downturn, claimed Alex Williams, head of technical support at Sussex-based VAR Damovo UK.
“This is a massive opportunity because there is going to be a lot of untapped potential and talent out there that would have previously been soaked up by universities,” he said.
His firm has been running a two-year apprenticeship scheme since 2009, which helps school leavers secure ICT-focused NVQs and, in many cases, a full-time job at Damovo.
“Students and young people are very much in demand. Our company, for example, has people approaching retirement age whom we will need to replace and we have skills gaps we need to fill to keep pace with the technological changes taking place in the industry,” he added.
Server virtualisation VAR Atlanta Technology launched a graduate recruitment programme last month after becoming disheartened at the low number of good sales people looking for work.
“The business has been growing for the past six years. To sustain that, we knew we needed to get more sales staff, but we really struggled because a lot of people in the market at the moment are there for a reason,” he explained.
“The economy is flat and the good sales people who already have good jobs are staying where they are. It is a problem that is affecting a lot of resellers right now.”
VAR Trustmarque Solutions has also used graduate recruitment to fill vacancies at its York-based headquarters. Liz Reynolds, the firm’s human resources director, explained: “There is a limit to the number of people in York with the skills we are looking for and graduates tend to be more willing to move to where the work is because they do not have commitments such as childcare, for example.”
Aside from helping firms that are struggling to fill jobs, recruiting university graduates and school leavers has a number of other advantages.
“Graduates come to us having spent three years in a formal learning environment and because of that, they are very good at absorbing information and picking up new skills,” she said.
“They know they are going to start off cold-calling and that they will not be given their own book of accounts to work through. It can be harder to manage the expectations of sales people who have been on the market a bit longer.”
Marlow-based VAR Softcat is another channel firm to throw its weight behind graduate recruitment.
The company’s managing director Martin Hellawell said Softcat is planning to take on 160 new staff over the next two years, and up to 90 of them could be graduates.
He said another advantage of working with graduates is their enthusiasm. “After a decade or more in any industry, people can become lazy, complacent and cynical about the work they do.
“Graduates are eager to learn and rise up the ranks because it is their first proper job and they want to prove themselves. It is also easier to mould them into Softcat people,” added Hellawell.
But, to achieve that, you still need experienced people in the company to show them the ropes, he stressed. “We are not just talking about sales and technical skills, but general advice on how to behave in the workplace. For example, reminding the men to have a shave before they meet a customer.”
Because of this, channel companies thinking of introducing a graduate or apprenticeship scheme should bear in mind the impact it could have on the rest of the firm’s time and productivity, warned Damovo’s Williams.
“In our case, this is a two-year commitment we are making. It is not a quick fix for us because it requires input from every part of the business,” he said.
Even so, Atlanta’s Kelson claims graduate programmes still work out to be better value for money than relying on recruitment agencies, because the results are less hit and miss.
“Training up four inexperienced people costs less than recruiting one experienced sales person, when you factor in the agency costs, which can run into thousands and thousands of pounds,” he said.
“There is also no guarantee that once you have paid out that money, they will end up being a good fit for the company and you will not end up firing them three months later.”
Channel firms prepared to make this kind of commitment often find their efforts are rewarded with higher levels of staff retention and loyalty, claimed several of the VARs CRN approached.
“We have found that people join the business, but their talents lie in other areas of IT - which is why we recently introduced a standalone service desk apprenticeship - and we try to help them wherever we can to pursue a career that is right for them,” said Williams. “People remember and appreciate things like that.”
That being said, Hellawell added that one of the reasons Softcat has chosen to focus on recruiting graduate sales trainees is because technical staff are at higher risk of being poached by a rival.
“Teaching people technical skills and getting them certified takes time and it is very costly. Also, once they have completed their training, their market value shoots through the roof and the last thing you want to see is that investment walk out the door to one of your competitors,” he said.
“That is an issue we take very seriously by making sure we step up their pay aggressively in line with the skills they have and ensure the company is a place where they like to work.”
Big names get on board
It is not just resellers that are climbing aboard the graduate and apprenticeship bandwagon with aplomb, as several high-profile vendors and distributors have also embarked on similar initiatives in recent years.
Software giant Microsoft announced plans in September 2009 to skill up 3,000 apprentices over the next two years, winning the backing of its distributor Westcoast in September, which offered to help its VARs find jobs for 500 of the candidates.
Fellow software behemoth Oracle promised to sign up an unspecified number of UK school leavers and graduates in July to fill sales roles at the firm as part of an EMEA-wide recruitment campaign aimed at bringing on board 1,700 new employees.
Distribution giant Avnet also told ChannelWeb it is planning to take on 10 students within the next 12 months, who will be offered the chance to take part in a two-year practical training programme.
The firm's HR director, Margaret Duke, said: "We consider it a win-win situation: the students gain real-world experience and a potential job and we get the talent we need to develop our business."
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