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How can universities help to attract and retain graduates in North East England?

Ross Smith

Ross Smith

Director of Policy
North East England Chamber of Commerce

Over the last three years, skills has been the most common concern raised by members of North East England Chamber of Commerce. And while this is felt most acutely in some specific industries – notably digital and advanced manufacturing –almost every sector has raised concerns over the availability of skilled employees.

We don’t yet know what Brexit will mean, but many businesses are understandably worried that it may reduce the pool of talent available to them if it becomes harder to recruit from outside the UK.

And with North East England’s working age population not forecast to grow in the next 10 years, maximising the skills already in the region is vital. Our universities are obviously a critical source for that.

At the moment there are three different stories when it comes to attracting graduates to jobs here. We are good at retaining people who grow up here and stay here for university. We also have a good record of attracting back native North Easterners who study elsewhere – whether immediately after graduation or some years later. Where we fall down is ensuring those people who arrive in the region to study see good enough reason to stay here after graduation. Too many highly talented people receive a great education in North East England, only for businesses in other parts of the country to benefit from their skills.

Over the next six months, our Chamber, working with one of our Partner members, Sevcon, is exploring this issue and the measures that could address it. But at a recent Universities UK seminar I offered the following thoughts based on our members’ experiences.

We identify three areas where universities could do more to help encourage graduates to stay to work in North East England. The first is to sell the region as more than just a place to study. This can be done very simplistically, by pointing out the BALTIC art gallery or Northumberland National Park. But it needs to go much deeper, with a better understanding of what 20-somethings will value, and creating opportunities to actually experience, rather than just read about them.

The massive change that has taken place in the student housing market requires adjustment in considering graduates’ expectations. Given relative costs to other parts of the country, housing should be a big part of our offer to young people, but they need good advice on where to look and what finance is available. Ensuring they have connections in the region is also important, and universities can do more to encourage students to get to know people outside of campus life, through internships, involvement in local communities or sports teams.

The second issue relates to the type of job opportunities that exist locally. With relatively few corporate headquarters in North East England, traditional graduate training schemes are less common. But the opportunity to work within a SME or smaller office can often be a much better launchpad for a career, as it means getting a more rounded experience and responsibility quicker.

Students need to be prepared for this, however. Whatever their discipline, they will be expected to understand the implications of their role, so a grounding in business knowledge will be beneficial. They need opportunity to find job vacancies in these businesses, which probably won’t come up at traditional careers fairs. Vacancies won’t be neatly timed to fit with academic years, so students may need help to bridge the gap between graduation and a job opportunity in their chosen field without the need to go home to mum and dad.

Some businesses also need help to understand how to get maximum benefits from employing graduates, while keeping them enthused. Universities could help prepare SMEs who have the potential for graduate vacancies, and ensure this is matched with the expectations they encourage among their students.

The final point relates to the scale of opportunity in the region. As a relatively small region with a small business base, it is often easier to identify jobs here than to see a longer-term career path. Universities can work with Local Enterprise Partnerships to identify the industry clusters that have significant scale in this region, and focus on helping students better recognise and understand these. If they have a partner, then it is important they can each identify career paths in the region.

Our Chamber isn’t just made up of people who run businesses in North East England. They live here, raise their families here and spend their leisure time here too. They already know there are many great reasons to build a career in this region, but we need to work harder alongside our universities to pass that message on.

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David Bewick
David Bewick says:
30 April 2017 at 18:20

Hi Ross

Many good points in here. There is a strong set of professional bodies in the region that can also be leveraged in this. PMI/APM have higher education programmes specifically for project management skills. There are also opportunities through the Enactus programme for students to gain a more rounded outlook and opportunities to network with Enactus business advisors from sponsor organisations. We have Enactus teams in four of our universities now with Northumbria joining last year.


Tim Pain
Tim Pain says:
23 May 2017 at 08:32

Good article Ross and I agree!

On a practical and immediate note, the University of Sunderland has run an internship programme for several years, which plaxces recent graduates with SMEs.  This has multiple benefits, not only improving graduate retention, but also tackling improvement projects, providing additional capacity for SMEs and enabling companies to "try before they buy".  We find that the programme enables companies to actually create jobs not just fill vacancies, or in some cases create a graduate-level rather than a lower-skilled job with consequent productivity benefits.  Almost universally the feedback is really positive, with over 90% of graduates being kept on in the company at the end of the internship programme.

The (ESIF funded) scheme pays £6k towards a 12 month placement.  Any help you could provide in promoting the scheme to NECC members would be much appreciated!

Best regards

Tim