Paul Strickland

Paul Strickland


September is the time for new graduates to join the company, and this year our division has employed 20 young engineers who will spend two years in various placements around the business. A few years have passed since I was in the graduates’ shoes, but I can still remember enough of the experience to have an opinion of what a typical graduate placement should be. And with a graduate in our office for the rest of the year I hope to be able to develop the best placement I can.

Why graduates are important

In much of our business we rely on specialists — people who know their field in great detail and who are often one-of-a-kind experts. Offering the services of these people can be a unique selling point and it drives a lot of the value perceived by our customers. As that specialist workforce continues to age, however, it is important to recruit new engineers with the aim of maintaining the knowledge we have and developing it for the future.

The problem with specialist roles is that it is not easy to replace a retiring engineer. For many roles there is no single course that can be taken, no book that can be read or handbook to follow. Developing into the roles required often needs time, and a lot of it. It might take only six months to develop a new starter into a state where they can work competently and with limited supervision, but usually years are required before expert can be used to describe them.

We recruit from all stages of people’s careers: a graduate’s first job, a mid-career change, ex-military personnel going back to civilian life and late-career experts looking to pass on their expertise on a part-time basis. The variety of experience this brings is invaluable, but it is the brand new graduate with a long career ahead of them that I am most interested in for this article.

The problem with some placements

In our business a graduate will typically spend six months working in one area before moving somewhere else. From past experience these placements can vary considerably in what they offer a graduate: anything from being given some books to read and publications to update to being immersed in a three-month overseas flight trial programme.

Good placements can make a graduate feel enthusiastic about their job, but bad ones can cause the early onset of demotivation and can lead to disengagement. I firmly believe that a graduate should only be put into a placement if it can be designed to keep the graduate as engaged as possible.

Bad placements are not often the fault of the people responsible for mentoring a graduate. People are extremely busy a lot of the time, and graduates can be a big overhead on that person’s time. However, I think that a lot of damage can be caused by being unable to adequately mentor someone new to their career.

Feeling useful

It’s exciting to be a graduate in a new job. After spending the majority of your life in education, living off parents and loans, suddenly you find yourself with a salary, a pension and a job that doesn’t give you homework. It’s easy to forget a lot of the novelty of a job where suddenly you are treated like a proper grown-up, and it’s quite natural to have a long list of questions.

The enthusiasm of a graduate is a powerful tool — being too young and inexperienced to have developed any cynicism about the job they can normally take to a task with a hunger to do work. If, however, that enthusiastic graduate is sat at a desk and given something trivial to do that they quickly learn is not actually going to contribute to any product or service, how long do you think that enthusiasm will last?

A feeling of worth matters to all employees, but if a graduate is put into a busy office with everyone working long hours but only given scraps of work, filing or even nothing at all then they might start to see themselves as more of a burden than a member of that team. Contrast that with being given a small (albeit maybe simple or trivial) package of work and being told how it will contribute to the overall project. Suddenly you can have a graduate who feels part of a team and who can tell their friends and family about how they are not only busy but making a difference.

My plan

It’s easy to just write about how things should be without putting them into practice. This year, however, I have the opportunity to see if I can manage the ideal graduate placement.

From the middle of September this year we have had a graduate who is only two weeks into their career. We knew that they were coming a couple of months in advance, and we were able to identify a neat package of work that we could guide them through. If successful they would have a piece of work that:

  • Contributes to a bigger programme
  • Teaches them the fundamental aspects of our role
  • Allows them to work independently but with supervision and frequent access to guidance and support
  • Potentially offers them co-authorship of the end result

In the few months that we have for this placement, it would not be possible to teach everything and then set our graduate off on a job, so instead we decided to drop them straight into the middle of a project. We have short workshops that introduce a particular aspect of work and then let the graduate have access to the evidence with a specific goal that is later reviewed. I hope that working in this bite-size manner will allow the graduate to develop at their own pace but without feeling daunted by a task they may not fully comprehend. Ideally we will adjust the type or amount of work depending on the progress that is made.

The placement as it stands requires a lot of my time (and that of my colleagues). It is my aspiration that this will be a useful investment, both in the long and short term. In the long term we will ideally have a motivated and competent engineer by the time the two-year scheme is complete, but even in the short term the graduate is doing work that we would otherwise have to do, and so some of that overhead is reduced by allowing us to focus on other activities that demand our attention.

Will it work?

As I write this, the placement has lasted only two weeks. Already I have learned a lot about the time I should allocate to training versus what I can achieve on my own projects. But really it is far too early to tell. If all goes to plan the placement will end in December. I’ll be interested to review this article then, but I’ll also be asking the graduate for their feedback on how the placement went.


With an influx of new graduates this September, I took some time to reflect on why they matter and what makes a placement good or bad. Having the opportunity to guide a graduate through their first six months in the company, I tried, along with my colleagues, to design the best placement I could. It will hopefully be good not only for the graduate, but also beneficial to us, both in the short and long term. Graduates are an investment that require time before they provide a good return, but if they are looked after they should end up as the experts that we need in the future.

In January I’ll review what I wrote here, and hopefully see what worked well for our placement and where we can improve.

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