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Sunday, 26 October 2014

Why graduates aren't making the grade

We recently issued a statement that caused us some distress. It wasn’t just the message itself that distressed us, but the fact we had to say it at all. We cancelled our graduate positions.

As a twelve-year-old small- to medium-sized research company we have prided ourselves on offering placement and graduate positions, delivering some fantastic new talent. Over the last few years, though, we have noticed an accelerating decline in the quality of graduates. Despite our best efforts we have come to the decision that we would prefer to be understaffed than hire poor-quality applicants.

“Despite our best efforts we have come to the decision that we would prefer to be understaffed than hire poor-quality applicants”

Our work is frequently centred on kids, teenagers, mums and teachers, so we work regularly in schools. We know this sector pretty well, which is another reason we are so deeply affected by having to take this decision.

Over the past couple of years we have dug deeper to see for ourselves what is happening with the next generation. Technology and ease of travel would seem to have offered them boundless educational opportunities. Scratch the surface, however, and we find that there are some fundamentals missing. This is creating a generation lacking in core skills.

We can’t point the finger at the teachers – they are doing a formidable job. We can start wondering, though, how the current education system is failing both teachers and children.

Teachers are having their power and initiative taken away; they are swamped with unrealistic goals and monitored by an overabundance of tests and evaluations. Little wonder that experienced teacher motivation is at an all-time low. Meanwhile kids are being given less free play time and more goal-based activities. This can be particularly damaging for young children who need this free time to develop their own self-esteem, creative confidence and motivational skills. Rather than developing a hard-working generation we are doing considerable damage.

Combine all of this with the current trend for abbreviated communication, and it is easy to see why we have a generation of clever young people who lack basic written and communication skills, not to mention analytical talent. Twitter and text messaging are far cooler than other forms of communication and it’s easy to see how young people are drawn to the speed and simplicity. The trend seems to permeate the industry in general – everything is on a much more superficial level, and little time or effort is spent on diving deep, which is vital for our line of work. Snappy thinking can work well in marketing and advertising, but there is always a need for real in-depth insights that take some analysis to reach.

These trends will affect most sectors, but research is particularly likely to suffer. The industry relies on strong analytical skills combined with evaluative thought and a capacity to communicate clearly and concisely. In order to apply their knowledge of what makes their peers tick, today’s bright young people need the drive and curiosity to dig deep and learn how to analyse their findings.

We recently took on a graduate who had earned a first in history. But when he started with us he seemed confused when tasked to write up research findings to put into a report. We could see from his academic performance that he was intelligent, but he had no capacity to creatively analyse an issue and produce a written conclusion. His situation is not unique. We have found that even those graduates with the best interview skills fail in the written tests. Does this mean a slow death for research analysis as we know it?

Research is one of the most diverse and challenging sectors in which to work and it should attract energetic young minds. If it doesn’t, or if they’re not up to it, research risks becoming a sector run by older people who will struggle to shake off preconceived notions. We need young people’s new ideas and new methodologies in research. We need to be challenged.

Rather than laying blame, our experience has made us take a fresh look at what we are offering our employees. We make a point of letting new recruits demonstrate their full potential, rather than taking shining stars and giving them boring work to do – a problem that Ray Poynter rightly highlighted in a recent Esomar debate. Our training programmes are designed to build on a foundation of broad-based understanding and to stretch and motivate.

I believe we need to work hard to keep alive the good part of research: analysing what we hear from consumers and communicating the depth of information in an actionable way. Let’s take what we learn about young people in our research and find ways to use it to help our own industry.

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Readers' comments (16)

  • I do not agree with your opinions at all. I think you need to re-evaluate your hiring procedures to filter good apples from bad. Young talent is necessary in every industry and these young people will shape the future of many businesses.

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  • How disappointing to hear such views from a CEO! A big loss for the graduate population interested in MR...I'm sure! What will graduates do now?

    I'm not a bitter graduate, but infact in my 30's and am an occupational psychologist who does research for various businesses. I find the article from Bryan not particularly useful. In fact I find it positively divisive and quite discrimatory for the poor graduates who will rejected even before they're given a chance to show their metal!

    I would suggest as many have pointed out, that Bryan needs to review his selection and assessment process as it would appear it's not very good! In addition, why would you take on a History major as a market researcher??? Even with a first it means little in relation to the final tasks he is being asked to do. How can you expect him/her to conduct 'social science research'? Perhaps you should try recruiting a graduate who achieved a first in psychology or sociology? Additionally, you don't rely on an interview to assess competency and predict job performance. You use it IN ADDITION to other assessment techniques such as a work sample (i.e. mini exercise where you might ask a candidate to review a graph and interpret it and draw conclusions).

    Also, what about 'trainability'? You take on a young sharp mind and give them the support to grow into what you want them to become. Not simply say 'crunch the data and produce a report for me'. Probably a good thing for him/her you had to let him go! I assume you let him/her go, otherwise it would be terrible for them to read your article.

    I'm sure if you need help with your recruitment and assessment to ensure a more accurate prediction of the ability of candidates, you should look up an occupational psychologist in the yellow pages!

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  • What a pity Bryan has had such a disappointment. Quite the converse is true at Discovery, we have been recruiting graduates regularly over the last 15 years and our experience has been quite the opposite. True graduates need careful selection, and with nearly 500 applicants for one job, the process does require considerable rigour, however, the results are so rewarding. Bright, talented, eager young things, given the knowledge, skills and confidence, readily embrace the role; watching them become skilled in analysis, interpretation, presenting and enhancing their written skills is a joy. Ok they sometimes require an old hand to steady them, but in truth didn’t we all. What’s more they have new media skills that we haven’t had the time to develop!

    Perhaps organisations need to look to themselves if they are unable to kindle the light that undoubtedly lies within these young people. Highly processed organisations are not the way to generate creativity and having to “serve time” with very basic and boring tasks does not engage. Graduates need to hear and see the full story of the research process to understand just how amazing and innovative the industry is and then be given the forums to add their input. Furthermore, if they can see actions being taken as a result of their efforts, you have a force. Perhaps we have been lucky. We have continued to employ over 75% of our Grad Trainees, they are among the best the industry has to offer, and we have seen no decline in the calibre over the years.

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  • It bothers me that companies today label the youth incompetent. It is in fact the very managers and CEOs in companies that fail due to their lack of leadership.

    "Leaders" and "Managers" today have an attitude of "I'm Okay, you're not Okay" and do very little to mentor, guide and develop practical skills for the proteges.

    Great leaders and managers all had great mentors. But today, management prefer to belittle their proteges and give them a difficult task with the presumption that they will sink.

    If they do fairly well, the manager still criticizes and nit picks their work with his over-inflated opinions.

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  • The response by 'Anonymous' (7/5/11) illustrates Bryan Urbick's point perfectly. 'Outright generalize'? Furthermore, 'Anonymous' uses the verb 'attain' in the wrong context: he/she seems to have confused 'attract' and 'obtain'.

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  • I am a young Research Executive and I don't think that the article really acknowledges the real issues. Is it not perhaps a question of selecting the right candidates through improved interview techniques? Another problem is that most students are not given any information about market research as a career, the skills required or the function of the research industry. Therefore to attract the best talent the industry needs to get out there and communicate more effectively. Top graduates aren't coming to you and knocking on your door because other industries are so much better at communicating about their grad schemes.

    Research needs to follow the example of the IT industry, going into universities and creating courses to equip graduates with the desired skills. In my marketing degree the module entitled "Market Research" was a joke and hardly went the right way about inspiring the next generation of potential researchers. Agencies need to work with educators and invest in the future of the industry in a more pro-active way. For an industry that talks a great deal about engagement we aren't very good at engaging the world outside research.

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