Julia Smith had no burning ambition to be a management consultant. In fact, she was a civil engineering masters student at Birmingham University and being sponsored by a major contractor when she went to a milk-round interview with Andersen Consulting.

“When I went, I had no idea what they did,” she says. What the company told her convinced 24-year-old Smith to abandon her construction career. So, what was so tempting?

“They were prepared to put money into training – they said they spent 12% of their annual revenue on training. That was a big pull. And they wanted good grades, so you knew the job would be an intellectual challenge. They pushed how much responsibility you would have, which was exactly what I wanted.”

This was in stark contrast to Smith’s experiences of construction. She says her placements with the sponsoring contractor left her “disillusioned with the industry”. “Nobody would train me or tell me what was going on, so I was left to do quite trivial jobs. I wasn’t used effectively; I didn’t get any opportunities to prove what I could do and to take responsibility. It was very frustrating.”

Unsurprisingly, construction lost out in the financial comparison as well. Smith’s starting salary at the contractor would have been £10 000 lower than Andersen’s. The management consultant also offered a company pension and private healthcare. Perhaps more importantly for her, it was also prepared to allow her to take a year off to travel; the contractor offered six months.

Almost 18 months later, the job has lived up to its promises. Before she joined the firm, Smith went on a five-day residential course to learn about the industry. On joining, she was given three weeks’ training in London and another three in Chicago, home to Andersen’s global headquarters. “All the graduate trainees from around the world train in Chicago. You meet people and it instils the corporate identity. Plus it shows you that there are opportunities to travel with the firm.”

The company has not stinted on the responsibility, either – Smith is already dealing with very senior people on the client’s side – or the corporate lifestyle. “Andersen is very good on the corporate functions. Because we all work on clients’ sites, we might not see our colleagues for a while, so the company will organise drinks or a get-together.”

Smith feels that she has met many more like-minded people than she would have in construction, yet many of her colleagues have a similar background. “On the project I’m working on now, 50% of the people trained as engineers. Andersen likes engineers. It likes the way they think,” she says. And if it keeps targeting them, construction firms will have some fight on their hands to fill their ranks.

10 ways to get ahead on the milk-round

  • Become an “employer of choice”. Some organisations have to fight off graduates because they are seen as employers that offer good career and development opportunities.
  • Showcase your company. Be proactive about selling it and the kind of careers and training it can offer.
  • Offer placements for undergraduates. This will build your company’s reputation and create an opportunity to get to know potential recruits.
  • Define career paths. Graduates will be more positive about your company if they can understand how a career with you is likely to develop.
  • Establish links with universities. Sponsoring an event or becoming involved in industry liaison programmes will label your organisation as serious about employing graduates.
  • Review training programmes. Graduates are getting smart about training and development. It must be relevant, up to date and tradable. Graduates don’t expect a career for life but they do expect to acquire skills that will keep them employed.
  • Be honest about what you can offer. It’s no good promising the earth if you can’t deliver; this only breeds resentment and frustration.
  • Hold open days. These will give prospective candidates the chance to experience your company informally, to meet former graduate recruits and question them about their experience of working for you.
  • Be realistic in your expectations. Don’t expect graduates to walk through your door ready for work. Many will have work experience but most will still need a significant amount of induction and development in business skills.
  • Shop around. Don’t limit your intake of graduates to a few universities by virtue of their “snob value”. Many of the newer universities offer more vocationally based courses and give a good grounding in work-related skills.