How to get a yes from the graduate scheme interview

Want the training and security of a graduate scheme? Show me the passion, says one leading player. And way more than good exam results

Student & Young Professional asked Victor Chavez (pictured), deputy CEO of Thales UK, how you’d make it into the organisation’s graduate development scheme.

The UK scheme was revamped four years ago to give Thales grads (part of a 68,000-strong global workforce in aerospace, defence, security and transportation) extra training in “softer skills” such as communication and team working.

“It’s interesting to see how it’s evolved over the years from when I was a graduate and all you needed [was to] have a good academic qualification, but certainly we look to a rather broader range of skills now,” he said.

“We’re looking for slightly broader individuals who we have then taken through into our graduate development programme. We need our engineers to be not just great engineers and really passionate about what we do and who we are, but we also need them to have good commercial skills.

“There’s a lot we do as part of that graduate development programme to broaden them further, making sure they develop their creative skills.

“Graduates of today are becoming ever more demanding as individuals. They are starting to understand, themselves, the importance of employability-type skills and their extra-curricular activities.

“Both sides have started to think more carefully about these softer skills.

“I think it’s difficult to prove [the effect on a company’s profitability of nurturing these softer skills] but if I were to go out to ask the businesses there’s no doubt in the mind of the individuals there that that is the case. The benefit to having engineers who have a really good understanding of the commercial dimension – there’s no dispute that’s essential.

“We also take a really good look at the individuals’ leadership potential. In my day engineers were engineers and they didn’t need to be leaders. They weren’t expected to be leaders.”

Now, Thales looks at their abilities in leadership from bottom – team and project leadership – to the top.

But go on, tell us how to get on the scheme (there’s more than 300 on the scheme at the moment, and growing all the time – see panel, right.)

“I think getting into a graduate scheme, getting employed – good interview practice is important. Really do your homework about the organisation you’re approaching; find out as much as possible; don’t be afraid to make phone calls to talk to people in advance. It comes back to your broader CV, which you develop through your school days and university days; to have as much breadth to show you’re different from the run of the mill – and to show enthusiasm.

“Everybody should be capable of conveying [their] passion for engineering. One of the things we find when I talk to the graduates in Thales is what attracted them is [that] we do really real engineering; fantastic, cutting-edge stuff that excites them.”

What is Thales is looking for in its graduate recruits?

We are interested in graduates from a wide range of disciplines – commercial, legal, scientific – and although immediately applicable skills are very useful, we invest in extensive vocational training to help them into productive work (e.g. finance, commercial and system engineering for scientists).

Basically, we’re looking for technically robust engineers who bring new and innovative ideas to the organisation. Thales’s reputation is based on the fact that we do excellent engineering, but we are also known for our invention, so we are looking for people who can combine rigour with innovation.

We are looking for a good fit to our core values and these are evaluated at all stages of our assessment process.

We are looking for engineering graduates who have a passion for engineering and are enthusiastic about our organisation and the work we do. As an international organisation we are also increasingly looking for mobile individuals who are keen to move around the company both within the UK and abroad, as this is extremely valuable for their development. Also, Thales has worldwide technology and expertise, so we require that our people work with their international colleagues to produce the best solutions.

How has this changed over recent years?

With the introduction and implementation of a structured broad assessment and selection process in 2006, which focuses on a broad set of competencies as well as technical ability, I believe that we have recognised the fundamental importance of skills such as team working, communication and commercial awareness, in addition to an engineering qualification, to demonstrate leadership potential. This is not only reflected in the selection process but also in our Graduate Development Programme (GDP), which runs over four years and focuses on developing those skills required for a graduate to be successful in our business, as well as leading to professional registration as an Incorporated or Chartered Engineer.

We invest significantly in the recruitment and development of our graduates, which demonstrates the strategic importance we place on them in our organisation. We currently have 311 graduates on the GDP throughout all parts of the business.

How have potential recruits have changed over recent years?

For Thales specifically, but also more widely across engineering graduates more generally, over recent years the graduates themselves now understand the importance of the development of employability skills and extra-curricular activities.

Generation Y, as the current generation is collectively known, are a demanding, self-aware population which has high expectations and we, as employers, have a responsibility to manage that and it’s just as much about them choosing us as us choosing them. Graduates select companies to apply to, or accept an offer from, based on wider issues such as CR, ethics, the green agenda etc., and these other issues are very important to our values.

How can candidates best present themselves in these very difficult times?

The most important advice when you apply to an organisation is to do your research. Find out as much as you can about an organisation before attending an interview or assessment centre. These are difficult times for graduates, due to reductions in vacancies and increasing numbers of graduates entering the job market, and so competition is high.

However, engineers are in demand – not just in our industry sector where they apply their technical skills directly, but also in other industry sectors such as accountancy and investment banking, where the skills are applied in a more lateral way. That makes the competition for the best engineering graduates very high.

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