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OPINION7 May 2010

Why graduates aren't making the grade

Opinion

Bryan Urbick, founder and CEO of the Consumer Knowledge Centre, explains why his company has given up looking for graduate recruits.

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.

16 Comments

6 years ago

I spend a lot of time with young people and I do not think there has been any drop in standard. I wonder if Bryan is coming up that that age when he starts to think that standards are dropping. Remember, university is not supposed to be a training centre for industry, it is simply an educator. In looking for graduates I would pay particular attention to people who have written for newspapers, been broadcasters, run a blog or community, have done stand up comedy, have written plays or shows. If I were to share a concern with Bryan, it would be that the arts seem to be increasingly prescriptive. I find the sciences and to a lesser extent the social sciences tend to inculcate more anylitical skills - but I may be biased as my background in more in the sciences and social sciences.

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6 years ago

I find this article very disappointing. The sweeping generalisations you make about young people are shocking. As a researcher yourself you should know that your experience with graduates shouldn't be generalised to the entire population. As a recent graduate myself in a graduate scheme, I find in fact that employers create self fulfilling prophecies. By not giving graduates the responsibility, creative freedom and ability to voice opinions we so desperately seek to prove ourselves, employers are dampening the enthusiasm of my generation. So Bryan I'm sorry to hear you've had a negative experience with your graduate scheme, but tarnishing all graduates and the younger generation helps neither you, me, or anyone.

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6 years ago

As a young researcher, I find it quite surprising that you would outright generalize such claims. Perhaps you should investigate internally as to why you've attained such poor candidates before you decide to publicize such opinions to the industry....

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6 years ago

Many in the industry do talk about the challenges of Gen Y, a group who seem to feel ready to be the CEO after 2 years and seem relcuant to really put in the hard yards. How true that is I don't know but you hear it a lot. Maybe that's what every generation says about the one before it? What i will say though, reflecting on my own history in trying to recruit graduates into market research, is that i don't think as an industry we attract the best talent. That is not to say that the people we get are rubbish, simply that there is a whole lot of really good graduates who don't see MR as an attractive industry to be part of. The difference in the calibre of graduate candidates I saw when i was in a large respected research agency versus a global FMCG marketing business was enormous.

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6 years ago

My experience is that there are a lot of talented young people out there as there always have been but the world is changing and we have to change with it. For example, the world has moved on from long, detailed, written reports but some research firms still produce them as standard. At the MRS Conference this year, we had some very talented young people from the Edge Learner Forum who make high quality films from edited material captured on their mobile 'phones, and clients love this presentation form. If these young people joined a mainstream research agency, they'd probably be discouraged from engaging in this highly creative activity and asked to write a report!

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6 years ago

I do not agree with Bryan completely. We need to examine whether the market research industry is successful in attracting the right type of talent given its compensation structure for recent graduates. Do we hear the same lament from other industries - investment banking / consulting / marketing or finance?

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6 years ago

I agree with Ray and Mark. I don't think it's fair to make sweeping generalisations about thousands of people, just because of a few bad experiences. How are we supposed to attract new talent into our industry and bring in enthusiastic researchers without recruiting graduates, with new perspectives on what we do and how we do it? Yes, we could look to recruit people in from other industries (rather than people fresh out of university), but we need new and young talent in the industry, otherwise researchers will end up a dying breed, with everyone over the age of 50 in a few years' time!! I started on a graduate scheme in market research in 2002 and since then I have had some fantastic opportunities given to me, which I'm both grateful for and willing (and very keen) to give to new recruits - and based on both my own experience and Virtual Surveys' experience of introducing a graduate scheme last year, I would certainly disagree with Bryan's comments. Perhaps Bryan should review his recruitment process, and focus any testing and interviewing on skills he thinks graduates are lacking. Or perhaps he has just been unlucky - either way, he shouldn't tar everyone with the same broad brush. I think the bigger issue is not one of talent, but of promoting the industry to the right graduates. In my experience a lot of people end up in market research having 'fallen into it' rather than seeking it out as a career, which is a shame - I certainly didn't grow up wanting to be a market researcher (did you?), although I'm glad I fell into it when I did!

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6 years ago

I can agree with you on a number of points. I am surprised myself when I see the sort of quality that market research agencies recruit at graduate level. This simply demonstrates to me that there must be some sort of flaw in the recruitment process if you do not discover that this "top" graduate lacks basic written communication skills! I speak from experience of the application process and 'assessment centres'. I am a fresh graduate myself, and can firmly state that I can engage in thorough analysis and as I genuinely enjoy writing, I am able to draw up reports at request. Quite simply put, we do exist and eliminating your graduate entry completely should not be the answer, instead a more rigorous evaluation through the recruitment activities should be adopted where you give the candidate to show what they can do, not simply that they did well in their A-levels and their degree.

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6 years ago

Brian, I think you are right on and applaud you for having the courage to speak out. Only when people realize the ultimate impact of a less than stellar education, limited opportunities, will things change. The reality is we don't teach critical thinking skills anymore, period. We put the answers in the back of math books, high school debate has been dumbed down from what it once was, and in Michigan they don't even want to require that a student take Algebra 2 for high school graduation. Trying to have conversations with people today, looking at what people think constitutes an "argument" or a "position" on ANY topic reveals this. The prevailing behavior in education and the workplace is to go to the person above you and expect them to tell you how to do the assignment they just gave you, then if they are willing to do that and you can complete the assignment, you await your applause. Is it any wonder that homeschooling is on the rise in the United States? No one is asking that students emerge from university prepared for a specific career, but at least let them emerge prepared to think.

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6 years ago

Brian, I can't comment on whether the problem is the quality of graduates or something about the industry or something about your specific sector or, indeed. company circumstances. However, there is an interesting clue in your point about "technology and ease of travel". Perhaps it makes sense to search more broadly for talent. Indeed, I think the industry would benefit from encouraging more immigration to this country. I hope you voted accordingly last week,

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