Nicolle Dawkins conducting a cylinder quality inspection on her graduate placement.

Graduate schemes: how to beat the odds

One of the most popular job routes for graduates is to enroll in a graduate scheme. In the UK these are many and varied, and the competition fierce, so to secure a much sought-after place it pays to think a little out-of-the-box.

The advantages of embarking on a grad scheme are many, particularly for those who are still undecided as to which area they want to specialise in. Most organisations offer a one to two-year placement and employ a rotation scheme where you move around departments experiencing different sectors of the business and learning a range of skills.

Being thrown into new roles lets you get under the skin of the organisation and discover what you’re actually really good at. It also forces you to be flexible and adapt to different situations – and familiarises you with people in different teams - a bonus when you finally decide which department you want to join permanently.

If an employer has a large graduate intake, you’ll also get the opportunity to network and perhaps socialise with peers who are all in the same boat as you. For those who have moved solo to a new city being able to bash out your gripes over a beer – funded by a pretty decent starting salary (from 25K upwards) - could be an invaluable resource.

Most applications happen between September and January for starting the following September, although an increasing number of employers have ‘open’ recruitment processes meaning that, technically, they’ll take applications year round. But given that many schemes are often massively oversubscribed and are also open to graduates from previous years who may have taken a sabbatical – it’s still a good idea to get in there early

Improve your odds of getting a grad scheme place

Statistically, and certainly where the big cheeses are concerned, you have a 1-in-10 chance of bagging a place on a grad scheme. One way to improve your odds however is to rev up those lateral thinking skills and expand your job search to off the beaten track.

For example, did you know that the profession of ‘patent attorney’ specifically requires you to have graduated in electronics, or mechanical engineering, or chemistry and life sciences? The job - obtaining patent protection for global clients - involves a mixture of technology, commerce and law. Key to this role is working with clients to build and develop patenting strategies, representing them before the patent office, and sometimes assisting solicitors in enforcing and revoking patents before the courts.

Companies like patent attorney specialists Marks & Clerk recruit annually to their grad schemes and as long as you’re armed with at least a 2:1, and your interest in law extends to more than the occasional episode of Judge Judy, you could end up working at the forefront of technology, while helping inventors make the most of their gizmos.

Expand your job search

Another offbeat area is that of confectionery. Seriously. For instance, Mars, purveyors of all things chocolate, offer an annual IMechE accredited engineering development programme. The scheme, for those holding a 2:1 in electrical, mechanical, manufacturing or chemical engineering (plus 280 UCAS points) comprises three eight-month placements during which you’ll be expected to project manage anything from developing a new production line to installing a new robotic wrapping machine that can process over 800 Mars Bars a minute. In addition to project management skills you could also be learning the commercial aspects of its a large-scale production facility. And be paid a starting salary of £28,000 plus a £2,000 joining bonus.

Or how about MI5? Earlier this year the British intelligence agency launched its first technology graduate development programme. Comprising two one-year postings in areas such as IT security and business analysis, on completion graduates get to specialize in the field they’re best at, gain a relevant professional qualification and embark on a fruitful career defending our shores from the threat of terrorism and espionage.

There are also plenty of surprises in store within respected institutions – such as the Royal Society of Chemistry. Your degree in molecular biology could see you, not bogged down in an underground laboratory, but on an 18-month fixed term contract consisting of three six-month placements during which you could be writing an articles for Chemistry World, working on international art projects, or helping at one of the RSC’s public lectures.

Consider different kinds of schemes

If you do want to take a more conventional route – then steer away from well-established, one-size-fits-all programmes and scan for schemes that are flexible and varied.

Just like Nicolle Dawkins did. After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from Surrey University she attended a national graduate fair in London and came across Parker Hannifin, manufacturers of motion and control technologies.

“I got chatting to the grads there and what came across was the diversity and flexibility of Parker’s programme,” Dawkins says. “So I applied to the chomeric division (that manufactures specialist materials for terminal management in large companies, military, telecoms and aerospace), did a telephone interview and an assessment day, and within a few days I was notified that Parker would be interested in offering me a position on the scheme.”

Dawkins’ 30-month stint began in autumn 2012 with a six-month placement at Parker’s hydraulics division where her main role was researching and creating a programme to aid design applications. She also received interpersonal skills and time management training. From there Dawkins moved into sales and marketing where she learned about the wide range of products Parker produces, and got involved in promotional campaigns, commercial videos and technical training.

“I was also very interested in learning a bit more about electronics so I took my third placement in Littlehampton where Parker make AC and DC drives,” Dawkins explains. “I spent eight months really focusing on testing, quality and continuous improvement processes from raw materials to finished product.”

Most recently Dawkins has moved to High Wycombe where she has become involved in the commercial and operational side of the business - concentrating on supply chain improvements, inventory management logistics, strategic pricing and costing.

Throughout the scheme Dawkins has been supported by on-site supervisors - and a mentor who was assigned on her initial assessment day.  The mentor has guided her through the scheme; coaching her on decision-making and reviewing her strengths and performance every quarter - ultimately helping her decide where she would like to settle in the future.

With six months left to go Dawkins is currently weighing up her options.

“I am very interested in the technical side and I like interacting with customers on a daily basis, discussing their problems and finding solutions. I also like the integral design project management and implementation side of things, so I think I’d like to get into an applications or project engineering role at the end of the programme,” she says.

Take advantage of placements during university

There is also a crafty way of swerving the crowded graduate scheme application track – as is demonstrated by Nathan Arndt. In 2011, between his third and fourth year of studying for a MEng Aeronautical Engineering at Loughborough University, Arndt decided to go for a year-long industrial placement at Lockheed Martin UK.  

There he worked mainly in ‘integration and test’ on the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme for the Merlin helicopter. His role was extremely varied involving testing systems in the lab, writing test procedures, resolving problem reports and assisting with flight trial data analysis.

“As a result of the variation, I got experience dealing with customers, suppliers, requirements management, change management, test procedure writing and problem solving, along with many other useful skills,” explains Arndt.

“The most enjoyable bit of the placement was the responsibility. I was trained to be able to conduct testing on my own and even got the chance to train new members of the team. On a number of occasions I was able to represent my team at high level meetings when others were unavailable, during which my opinions were valued as much as any other team member. This gave me great exposure to other elements of the project and business as well as with senior management.”

On completing his placement in September 2012 Arndt was offered a ‘letter of intent to hire’ and re-joined as a graduate the following year on Lockheed Martin’s two-year graduate scheme. He is currently based at the organisation’s biggest UK facility in Ampthill working on armoured tanks.

“It was genuinely one of the best decisions I made at university,” Arndt states. “It makes joining a company post graduation a lot easier and taught me a lot about how a business runs and how to put skills from university in to practice in the real world. It also made my final year at university a lot easier as I was more disciplined and my time management was better – no more late night cramming!”

Benefits of graduate schemes

Whichever route you choose graduate schemes are definitely one of the most rewarding options for both discovering your hidden strengths and getting an early push up the careers ladder.

As is confirmed by Nicolle Dawkins.

“I would definitely recommend a graduate scheme. It will have a really good impact on your future CV, you’re really supported in terms of development, and, most importantly, a grad scheme will allow you to discover where your passion lies and where you want to go in the long term.”

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