Is the industry ignoring graduate talent, asks Siân Harrington

Accountancy and law have the big salaries, while media offers glamour and the civil service stability and a large pension pot. No wonder the food and drink industry has to work hard to persuade the most talented young people to join its ranks.
Yet the traditional mechanism for attracting such people - the graduate training scheme - has fallen out of favour. Of 200 top employers across food and drink retailing, manufacturing, wholesaling and foodservice that were contacted by The Grocer for its Careers in Food and Drink supplement, only 32 companies had an official graduate intake programme, while another 14 offered student placements.
All the major retailers, plus large corporations such as Diageo, Cadbury, Unilever and McDonald’s, continue to view the graduate scheme as an important part of their recruitment policies. However, many big manufacturers have either dropped their schemes or have never offered one.
This does not surprise experts, however. Paul Wilkinson, chairman of Improve, the sector skills council for food and drink manufacturing, says the fact that the number of graduates has mushroomed over the past 20 years means that the conventional route is no longer as relevant. “There is a more flexible approach to recruitment of upper and middle tier into the industry. Graduate schemes are one way of getting talented people, but many of these are reappearing in a different form that is more appropriate for the overall skills needs today,” he says.
Steve Crabb, editor of People Management, concurs. “The traditional graduate career path boundaries have blurred. People are asking what having a degree actually brings to the party - and in many cases it is very little.”
For manufacturers, the issue is a bigger one - attracting talented people into what many regard as a dying and unglamorous sector: manufacturing. “We need to get younger people to choose a career in making things,” says Wilkinson. “We will lose the battle if we wait until they are 21. We need to get manufacturing on the education agenda early.”
For this reason, Improve has welcomed the government’s White Paper on education for 14 to 19-year-olds and says the food and drink industry is taking a lead in developing vocational diplomas, which can then be complemented by foundation degrees and honours degrees. Such diplomas, argues Wilkinson, will respond to employers’ needs as well as providing young people with relevant skills for a job in this industry. However, food retailers still believe graduate recruitment is vital. Sainsbury attracts 9,000 applicants for its 120 places, while Aldi offers a £36,000 pay packet and Audi A4 car for its graduates. Asda offers 60 positions a year across seven disciplines including retail, logistics, trading and George, with the majority (19) going into retail.
“We have always been positive about graduates,” explains James Yelland from Asda graduate recruitment. “We are looking for the best graduates we can get and have a major development programme. It’s about getting the cream of the crop and fast-tracking them. However, we recruit for cultural fit and then train them in the disciplines.”
Yelland believes the commitment shown by Asda - a set career path with live roles from day one and the ability to become a team leader in three years and general manager in five - pays off in terms of loyalty from the employee. “It is a two-way thing. We lose very few graduates once they have done the training,” he says.
While graduates are still in demand, it appears today’s employers want to catch future high-fliers early and develop them, Crabb notes. “Retailers such as Tesco make it easy to transfer from shelf stacker to manager. It’s about developing a relationship with the company from cradle to grave.”