As hundreds of graduates join supermarkets next week to begin training as area managers, department managers and buyers, Fiona McLelland discovers that food retailers are becoming an increasingly attractive proposition

The world of supermarket management has not traditionally been a Mecca for graduates but, over the past few years, it has become more and more attractive to final-year students.

Market research company High Fliers Research has interviewed about 15,000 students every year since 1997 to produce the UK Graduate Careers Survey, from which The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers is compiled.

The first top 100 list of companies that students thought offered the best opportunities did not feature one of the major supermarkets. In 1998, Tesco and Sainsbury charted at 45 and 50 respectively, and they were the sector’s sole representatives until recently, when Aldi, Asda and Waitrose entered the chart.

The results of the 2004 survey, to be published in September, will show another strong performance, with Sainsbury, Aldi, Asda and Tesco all in the top 35.

One reason for the surge in popularity, suggests Manchester University careers consultant Amanda Wood, is the image change that the industry has undergone.

“Gone are the days of the Curly Watts supermarket style of management,” says Wood. “Role models are much more positive now and the corporate profiles are getting higher in the media; students know the names and want to become part of that success.”

She adds that many graduates are turning away from traditionally popular careers, such as accountancy and investment banking, and seeking alternative jobs.

“It’s not all about hard cash any more. Students are looking for more from their careers. They want the opportunity to develop and retailers are telling them that they can give them the opportunity to progress.

“The supermarkets are making more of an effort to raise their profile on campus as well as working closely with university careers services, giving presentations and taking part in recruitment fairs.”

But retailers still have a long way to go if they want to attract a similar number of applicants as other sectors.

This year, the Graduate Careers Survey shows that 11.8% of finalists applied for media jobs, 11.2% for marketing and 11.1% for teaching, while only 4% opted for retailing.

However, Tesco graduate recruitment manager Clare Price believes the big supermarkets offer students an attractive blend of excitement and responsibility.

She says: “Variety and early responsibility at Tesco hold massive appeal for top graduates. Doing deals with record companies, organising fashion launches and bringing innovative products such as the latest mobile phones to market are just some of the fast-paced challenges we face every day.

“As our business evolves, so do the exciting opportunities for our recruits - the feedback we get from staff is that you never know where a career with Tesco will take you next.”

The head of Asda’s graduate scheme, Raj Varma, is delighted that Asda is 27th in the top 100 graduate employers.

“We are also in the top 100 of employers, which, with 130,000 colleagues, is a fantastic achievement,” says Varma. “Students will see that and they also know that Asda is really growing. When they go into our stores, they like the friendly atmosphere and see our success.

“The opportunities and responsibility we offer are massive and, now that we are an international company as part of Wal-Mart, students may get the opportunity to travel a few years down the line.”

Aldi rises up the chart
>>aldi offers tailored training programmes to meet the needs of individual graduates

For the past three years Aldi has been storming up The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers chart.

The supermarket chain first entered the chart in 2002 at number 65. In 2003 it sneaked into the top 20 and this year the only food retailer to chart higher than Aldi (23) was Sainsbury (20).

Peter Casey is managing director for the south west, with overall responsibility for Aldi’s recruitment strategy. He believes students are attracted by the high level of immediate responsibility and the competitive £36k salary as area managers.

Aldi takes on 70 or 80 graduates throughout the year and each is given a unique training programme.

“That makes us different from standard graduate recruitment schemes,” says Casey. “The training programme may last eight or 18 months, depending on the individual. We also offer places to people of different ages; they may be in their final year or they could be graduates who are into their early 30s.”

But the programme is not for the faint-hearted as it runs at a breakneck pace. Casey says: “Retail is physically demanding. We look for graduates with a strong work ethic and determination to succeed through other people, by having a positive impact on the way others work.”

To find these people, each of Aldi’s five MDs in the UK spends a lot of their own time canvassing students on campus, interviewing and training.

“We have a policy of not appointing anyone from outside the company above the level of area manager,” says Casey. “This is why we invest so much top management time in recruiting graduates as the expansion of our business depends on hiring the right people.”

Graduate gets his dream job - buyer
>>making the leap straight into buying

Guy Meakin counts himself lucky as he is flying high in his dream job as a buyer at Sainsbury.

After studying business management with retail, Meakin successfully applied to join the graduate training scheme in 2002. He has a period of buying Bordeaux wines under his belt and has now moved on to become a buyer for baby foods and accessories.

He says: “Instead of going to night classes to learn about wine, I’m now having to read mother and baby magazines and talk to families with kids, but it’s great dealing with bigger brands like Heinz and Nestlé.”

Meakin, 24, joined the scheme with 130 graduates and was one of only 11 to be trained as a buyer. “I chose Sainsbury because it was one of the few companies to offer the opportunity to get straight into buying, rather than climbing up the retail ladder,” he explains.

“It also had a great package and great training, with various courses covering negotiation and people management skills. Because we started with the rest of the graduates it’s been a great way to network. If I want information on how products are going in store I can just pick up the phone.”

Graduates have not always been welcomed with open arms by their colleagues, perhaps because of the extensive training and fast-track promotion offered to them, coupled with the self-inflated egos of some of the young recruits.

But Meakin says: “There is very little resentment of graduates from other buyers in Sainsbury. A few years ago you may have got that, but each recruit is now groomed by a senior buyer and they are very keen to produce an amazing trainee because it looks good for them.”

Careers in Food and Drink
>>>Directory aims to attract students into the industry

The Careers in Food and Drink directory is currently being compiled by William Reed Publishing for release this October.

CIFAD is an annual publication that is circulated to 5,000 schools and 70 key universities throughout the UK to promote the industry. It gives an overview of the careers available in the food and drink trade, including retailing, manufacturing, pub management and marketing.

For more information or to advertise, call Sarah Dalton on 01293 610 375.<