Housing associations take a chance on graduate schemes

In a crowded job market, some organisations are seizing their chance to bring in top talent for the future

Public services often struggle to attract the best talent. The stereotype of a bureaucratic and bloated sector, crippled by spending cuts and haunted by the threat of redundancy, can set jobseekers clamouring for lucrative private sector roles. But in a crowded job market with fewer graduate roles, is there now an opportunity to attract the brightest talent straight out of university?

An average of 83 graduates apply for every vacancy according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), and despite modest increases over the last three years, the number of graduate roles is still down 11% on pre-recession rates. Meanwhile, the number of graduates entering the job market has risen rapidly, with 50,000 extra graduates leaving university in 2012 compared to 2007.

“We certainly like to think that we’re in a buyers’ market, not just on the graduate side but across the board,” says Max Barnard, recruitment manager at Look Ahead Housing and Care. “We had about 220 applications to our graduate scheme this year and we’ve taken 10 graduates on. We did see a lot of really, really good people, and even if you’d taken out those 10, we’d still have been able to find 10 people who were, if not as good, very close to the standard we’d expect.”

Barnard says Look Ahead’s graduate scheme offers an opportunity to attract the “educationally elite” with an ethical side. “A lot of graduates, regardless of whether they’ve been to Oxford, Cambridge or the London School of Economics, do want to be involved in housing associations and social care.”

Changing attitudes

While housing associations dominate the Sunday Times top 100 not-for-profit companies to work for list, taking up almost half of the rankings, the sector is entirely absent in the top 100 graduate employers list.

Public spending cuts played their part in reducing the amount of graduate schemes, but the number of housing associations accepting applications has always been low and dropped to just six in 2009.

This could be changing. The Centre for Partnership’s graduate employment mentoring programme (Gem) matches graduates with one-year paid internships at housing associations, and has received enough interest to expand nationally and connect graduates to major providers such as Gentoo, Incommunities and Orbit. Does this mean housing associations are beginning to realise the value of the graduate market?

“I hope so,” says Amanda Livermore, Gem programme manager. “Housing organisations are very conscious that it’s not just about houses, it’s about investing in communities. We’re an ageing workforce, so we need to look at future leaders too. I wonder if it’s just hit home with a number of housing organisations.”

Terence Perrin, chairman of the AGR, says: “It is certainly the case that running a graduate programme is, while requiring an appropriate level of investment, an excellent way to attract young talent into your company.

“Students view graduate schemes as a good introduction to working life, since they typically offer experience of different areas of the business, access to senior mentors, and the chance to take early steps in developing managerial skills. If an organisation can demonstrate that it fulfils these needs, it will be attractive to high-quality graduates.”

Sanctuary started its graduate scheme in 2009 and this year received 350 applications from graduates chasing just three spaces – the group eventually hired four.

“It’s taken us slightly by surprise really,” says Ian McDermott, the group’s chief operating officer. “There is an awful lot of talent out there. We’ve been gratified with how interested people are in our organisation.”


Sanctuary’s graduate development programme website is minimalist and colourful, with a modern typeface and cascading calls-to-action at the top of each page. At first glance it could be the website of a media or design agency. The difference between the graduate site and the group’s main website couldn’t be more stark.

“The website is a lot funkier than anything that we provide on our corporate website,” McDermott says. “We wanted to engage with people in a manner which might be more familiar or attractive to them. We want the best people and we see ourselves competing with the very best blue-chip organisations for the very best talent.”

Hanover recently set up its own graduate scheme and the graduate website advertising it features a similar design. “That was very deliberately done,” explains head of HR Christine Armstrong. “Unless you have a personal interest in housing and accommodation for older people, you may not necessarily know about us or what we can offer. We do attract people from the private sector, but it tends to be in the third or fourth stage of careers. We want to get people into the organisation at an earlier level.”

Donna Clews graduated from Oxford University in 2010 with first-class honours in history before being accepted on to Sanctuary’s graduate scheme. She is now a business development manager within the group. “I knew I wanted something that had an effect on communities and I was quite attracted to the idea of a graduate scheme,” she says. “I was trying to find the best of both worlds. A company with the right ethos and that also had the right professional development opportunities.”

Clews witnessed a growing demand among graduates to work within the not-for-profit sector, but a lack of chances to break in, especially those that offer the structured development opportunities that graduate schemes often do. “A lot of the opportunities out there centred around volunteering and internship placements. There’s definitely not as easy a route in as you would find in the private sector.”

Axed schemes

But some housing associations remain unconvinced by the benefits of a graduate scheme, cherry-picking well educated individuals for closer career development and top roles. Despite the buoyant market for candidates, London & Quadrant (L&Q) has chosen to put its graduate scheme on hold. The London landlord will instead offer an apprenticeship scheme available to all applicants and a trainee management scheme with a minimum requirement of A-level qualifications. L&Q says the decision will not affect the group’s skillset and the new schemes will widen the employment opportunities it can provide to residents and communities.

“There’s always pressure to keep budgets tight,” says Sanctuary’s McDermott. “But attracting very good people, in their early years particularly, is a relatively inexpensive resource. We see it very much as helping the organisation be leaner and fitter for purpose.

“It would be short-sighted to stop our graduate program. It’s very easy to undervalue what young people have to offer to an organisation and the importance of an organisation in staying young and vibrant.”

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