In the battle to attract graduates, how do you compete with sexy industries offering starting salaries 10k higher? The last of our recruitment specials reports that training may be the key.

Bananas left in final year students’ pigeonholes, a fly-on-the-wall video about company life and a plush recruitment juggernaut touring campuses are three of the wackier ploys being used to lure graduates into the corporate fold by, respectively, Unilever, Asda and Andersen Consulting. Despite the growth of universities over the past 10 years, good graduates are a sought-after commodity, and firms are going to increasing lengths to get the best.

In the struggle for quality university output, construction is suffering more than most. As the first feature in this series showed, the number of students taking up quantity surveying or engineering is dwindling, and the battle to win them is hotting up in human resources departments across the country. Firms are taking desperate measures to prove that they are a cut above their rivals. Tactics range from providing the opportunity to work alongside the chief executive to bonuses for doing a better-than-good job on a project, A demonstrably solid training programme that goes beyond simply getting a professional qualification is key to their success. “Graduates want to see a clear career path and what is possible by a certain time,” says Zara Lamont, director of the Construction Best Practice Programme. “They are much more focused these days and they don’t think about joining a company for life. They need to know what a company is going to offer them and what they are going to learn and get expertise in.”

At Willmott Dixon, training is part of company life. All graduates are supported through to professional Chartered Institute of Builder status, which is partly what persuaded Robert Steer to join. Directors Steve Dixon and Rick Willmott make themselves available to give some of the ongoing courses.

Gleeds and Citex both have in-house training departments. The Citex Academy is accessed through the firm’s intranet so that staff know exactly what courses are available. Gleeds Academy, which has its own dedicated building in Nottingham, was set up last year after a training and development directorate was established to combat the recruitment crisis. Gleeds spends between 1.5-2% of its turnover on courses, which are all approved by the RICS. So far, 500 people have been through the academy, studying everything from technical subjects to dispute resolution, presentation skills and even how to be a director. “We hope it helps to attract the best people,” says Paul Gwilliam, a director at Gleeds. “Clients are also asking us about our training programme, so it helps market our staff to them, too.”

These days, the market is such that firms need to ensure that they make a good impression as much as the student sitting sweaty-palmed in an interview. Developing strong bonds with universities is one way they can put their name on the top of a good graduate’s list of target companies.

Willmott Dixon has a member of staff who spends 90% of his time travelling between universities developing links with heads of departments. Mace, Citex and WSP are also making friends with universities. Mace and Citex hold open days where, as well as giving a presentation on the company, they take along a recent graduate trainee to answer questions from the floor about what it’s like to work there. “We are after the best but they have to think that the culture of the company is right for them,” says Dianne Hughes, human resources manager for recruitment at Citex.

This almost backfired on Hughes when one graduate she took along announced that she was more interested in law than quantity surveying. As Hughes started to cringe, the trainee went on to explain that Citex was helping her through another degree course in law and that she was being given the opportunity to work in relevant areas of the business.

But smart firms are also realising that graduates have fixed ideas about where they want to work. If the pool of talent is to improve, young people need to be attracted before they leave school. Creating links with schools as Citex, Mace and Willmott Dixon have done is a chance to reach pupils when they are less likely to have decided on a career. Citex’s Hughes is always surprised at the number of schoolchildren who know nothing about quantity surveying. WSP joined forces with other building services firms last year and held a careers fair at Northumbria University for school leavers looking for courses.

According to Willmott Dixon trainee Steer, salary is less important than training, but that doesn’t mean financial incentives can be ignored. Salary is a recognition of worth but there are other financial incentives that give a firm the edge over others. Willmott Dixon has set aside £2.5m for a bonus scheme for staff. Once a project is finished, it is measured against a range of criteria, including customer satisfaction, time and quality. Those involved receive a bonus worked out on the results. On one project in London, the seven staff are on target to share £23 000. “The great thing about this scheme is that it’s not profit-related,” says Steve Dixon, director of Willmott Dixon.

Leaving bananas in students’ pigeonholes is one way to get your company noticed, but a mix of good training, early responsibility and a reasonable financial package is key to ensuring a happy graduate trainee. Construction cannot afford to pay £10 000 more for its graduates, but then there is a lot more to the recruitment game than that – as the best firms are showing.