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How to Retain and Develop Graduates


GraduatesConsultant John Pope has some helpful advice on how to attract, develop and retain high-calibre graduates in your organisation.

How are the graduates you recruited over the last two or three years? You bought the best you could find, at a price you could afford. It was probably expensive and difficult to get the ones you really wanted (unless you were already the employer of choice) yet you saw they had real talent and potential.

So what do they look like now? Has their promise been realised? How many have you lost?

Graduate loss rates vary a lot and can be quite high. For instance, one construction and engineering firm loses about five per cent a year and keeps the loss when they achieve their charter down to under 13 per cent. Another in the same field loses four per cent a year, but then loses 35 per cent on charter.

It is pretty clear that those who find they are not getting anywhere either leave, which is a loss; or they stay, and become disheartened, which is both wasteful and damaging.

Special treatment?

Being younger than those who selected or manage them means graduates may not have the same attitudes and values. Most have very little business experience. They may find it difficult to engage with a job where there is a good deal of repetition, or where the challenges are not evident or obviously relevant. Many have high expectations looking for early responsibility, personal development and clearly defined promotion prospects.

"They may find it difficult to engage with a job where there is a good deal of repetition, or where the challenges are not evident or obviously relevant."

John Pope, management consultant

Initial salary - though important in reflecting the value you place on them - may not be of overriding concern. They may have fewer financial commitments, though some will have substantial student loans to clear. They have few dependants, and after years of living meagrely as a student, a regular salary can seem like a fortune.

Many do not feel tied to a long-term career in one organisation and will be regularly keeping an eye on what other opportunities may be available. But they come with energy and enthusiasm and they still have dreams and ideals.

Retaining high-calibre graduates strongly depends on how well they feel development improves their saleability and career prospects. It is important that their experience and training is valuable and that they realise it is of value. While they continue to feel they are getting somewhere, they are likely to stay; when they feel they are not, they will look around.

Here are a few ideas to improve retention. Not all these ideas will work in every organisation, but some will.


Arrange for briefings and informal interviews by carefully selected graduates with one or two year's experience in the business. This can improve the quality of selection. It also develops the more senior graduate and builds up their self-esteem. It gives them a better idea of the sort of graduates who work in the company and shows that after a few years the company gives interesting responsibilities.

Avoid recruiting graduates for positions that do not need their skills and training. If it is difficult for a graduate to see quickly how their skills will be of use, show how and when they will be relevant. Show how lower level work can be a base from which they can learn to apply their skills to higher level work.

Do not raise expectations at recruitment time which are unlikely to be met in employment. With graduates you may have to define conditions and prospects more closely than with managers as they have little experience to guide them.

Clarify expectations of the work and, if possible, get other recent graduates to confirm your explanations from their experiences.


Graduates need more careful induction and familiarisation. Even the simplest aspects of business may be strange. In particular they may miss the company of those of similar age, which had been such a feature of university life.

Initial development

Have an initial development programme well prepared before a graduate arrives. If possible, those graduates joining together should join at the same time and be taken through the initial phase of the programme as a group. Someone who joins early is less likely to be fully one of the group - someone who joins late may always feel that he has missed something.

If possible, encourage the graduate to work for an appropriate further qualification, preferably where experience on the job is of direct relevance to the qualification process. Provide the support, opportunities and guidance needed.

"Make sure they go to 'good homes', where their managers will be really interested in them and not use them as cheap labour."

Appoint a 'mentor' for each graduate. This should be someone who is not their line manager, to whom the graduate can go for advice and guidance. This will include guidance on his managerial as well as technical progress. The mentor will also oversee the graduate's work and progress towards a professional qualification. Choose your mentors carefully and make sure they have the coaching and counselling skills needed.

Set up a formal training programme, preferably for the whole group, with a series of separate courses in subjects of importance, preferably spread out over a year or more. Get everyone back from their jobs to attend. The programme helps maintain the group and provides mutual support.

Make sure they go to 'good homes', where their managers will be really interested in them and not use them as cheap labour. Make sure they have jobs which stretch them progressively, and where they can see the value of the training and development they get. Help them see the value of their contributions to the business.

Find out the graduates’ views periodically on the organisation, their training, their work experience, and their expectations. Questionnaires are useful, but private discussions with individuals and small groups when graduates happen to be around, are much more valuable.

Make enough opportunities for them to learn about the wider aspects of the business. Encourage attendance at seminars and meetings where they will learn more about their profession or the industry in which they work. Make sure they understand the relevance of this exposure; their mentor should encourage them in this.

Authority, responsibility and recognition (not necessarily monetary) are powerful drugs for many graduates. Provide the opportunities when you can, to those whom you value most.

If possible get them into jobs where their service can be charged out to clients or charged against projects so that they have a measure of their worth.


There is so much which can be done to help the graduate, but too much support and spoon-feeding or too rigid a programme can stifle initiative. Maintain a healthy balance.

Longer-term development

Enrol them on your appraisal and development scheme as soon as possible and start appraisals by the end of the first six months. The mentor may contribute to the appraisal process and should contribute to the development plan, but must not become a 'judge' since this can jeopardise his position as friend and guide.

Identify a range of career paths for graduates, if possible. Ensure the graduate understands that the best opportunities arise for those who show talent and application. But do not give guarantees of particular career moves - they must be ready to take opportunities themselves when they crop up.

Make it clear that the graduate development programme leads into the organisation's programme for the development of all staff.

Accept there will be losses

You can’t keep them all, and you probably won’t want to. You will lose some of the most promising for reasons you can’t overcome. What matters is that they leave with good experience and admiration – almost as ambassadors.

Manage the process

Graduate recruitment, retention and development require proper management. Where the business employs enough graduates it is worthwhile giving the authority to a manager to manage the whole process. This may seem expensive, but the costs of loss and replacement of a graduate are substantial, and the benefits of better retention and development can easily outweigh the cost.

John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years. He has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career and has a reputation for original thinking on management issues. John can be contacted at [email protected]


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