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It is (or “was”, by the time this gets published) the second week of term, and that means it’s the time that we have available to help our third-years find a path to their future, and help them take their first steps on it. The work on their final projects (which is the only thing timetabled to occupy most of them) will give them a chance to explore their own capabilities and aptitudes, and to develop something that they can use for later demonstration and reflection.

When I try to explain to people why I have the glamorous departmental rôle of “employability coordinator”, I sometimes explain that I am the last person in the department to have had an actual job (ha-ha-only-serious). Of course this isn’t really true, but part of the point of doing the Teclo adventure was to learn about how the Real World works – or at least that bit of the real world that is a technology and infrastructure startup based in Mudeford and Zürich. (I missed the Kuala Lumpur and Hövenaset stages).

So although I can speak with some credibility about the world of small, bootstrapped companies, working among a team of frieds, it is fair to say that my experience with more traditional, large employers is limited. So when I had the good fortune to be invited to visit an assessment day held by FDM Group, a large IT consultancy firm, I saw an opportunity to learn more – and it did indeed turn out to be an educational morning.

After an introduction to the office, including coffee on a sofa with a pretty spectacular view over the Thames, we were taken in to the candidates’ initial briefing session, where they were made to introduce themselves (what degree they did, how they heard of FDM Group, when they could start, and something exciting about them) and given an introduction to the training programme that they were applying for (along with a couple of cheesy corporate videos). The terms of the training – a 12-week course, testing every week, and subsequent two-year employment term with the clock starting at the first consultancy placement, were presented up front; it’s perhaps worth noting that in the candidates’ introductions, they uniformly said that they could start work as soon as possible...

Then there were the interviews. The format was, for the students, three interviews of five minutes each, with four questions in each: loosely themed around their studies; their technical background; and their general outlook. If five minutes seems on the short side, it might be explained by the use of the “strength-based” interview paradigm – as opposed to the more traditional “competence-based”: the interviewers were less interested in the detail of a (prepared) answer to a specific question (e.g. “give me an example of when you were able to resolve conflict?”), than in the reaction of candidates to slightly less predictable questions (e.g. “were there any modules in your studies you didn’t like?” and “if you were given a surprise afternoon off from work, what would you do?”). I also got to observe the “wash-up”, where on the strength of the interviews the candidates were rated as pass, fail or marginal; from my observation, at least, it did not look like the interviews were used as traps: certainly, I didn’t strongly disagree with any of the judgments, and I thought the candidates were treated fairly.

After the interviews, the candidates were required to take three aptitude tests: mental arithmetic (fairly basic, but under a certain amount of time pressure); general (technical) knowledge and logic; and Venn diagrams and set notation. The first had some questions that were simple in all circumstances, and some that I wouldn’t have been pleased not to have pen and paper for – but a passing mark of 50% should be no problem for any technical graduate. The second was multiple-choice, and had some questions reminiscent of IQ tests, some probing knowledge of facts related to computing in general, and one or two towards the end that looked quite fearsome tests of logic and reasoning. The third was interesting – not so much for the material, which again did not look like it went beyond GCSE maths, but because of the approach: most of the candidates will not have thought about set notation for at least half a decade; however, the assessors provide a handbook giving all the information needed to solve the (basic) problems. Is this just a test of being able to Read The Fine Manual? Maybe not; the fact that the subsequent training includes a compulsory section on SQL suggests that there’s value in being able to reason about sets.

So, after all this, the successful candidates have earnt the right to study (unpaid, but at no direct cost) for twelve weeks, then will earn a wage of £18k plus £14.60/day for the first year, £18k plus £29.21/day for the second year, with conditions: the payments start when the trainees are first placed as consultants; there are no guarantees as to geographic location within the UK; and they must remain as FDM consultants for at least two years or repay the costs of their training; the staff on hand at the assessment day were up-front about the fact that a majority of their recruits go on to work as employees of their placements, and that the average time spent as an employee of FDM was around three years.

The FDM business model, then, looks like providing enough training to raw recruits to be plausibly useful, and taking a consultancy fee from other institutions for somewhat de-risking the recruitment process. The recruits get real-world experience and a foot in the door, as well as training (is 16 weeks of full-time training meaningful?) and a livable salary.

However. There’s something that sticks in the craw a bit. I understand that training costs money, and I understand that businesses have to profit. But there’s something a bit depressing about an IT consultancy that essentially states that graduates are not sufficiently skilled to be productive, but explicitly require further technical training: and that also requires those graduates to take that training without pay. I have spent a certain amount of time convincing myself that a comparison to indentured servitude is not fair; a two-year training programme is not uncommon, and although graduate trainee schemes don’t often publish their detailed terms and conditions I can imagine that there might well be little job security during the training period, and even clauses about recouping training fees in the event of resignation or dismissal for cause. But the lack of pay for the training period feels wrong to me; I can’t help but feel that this is a further barrier against those without the means to support themselves, and it is also unfair: even if you’re not being directly productive to the business, you’ve made a commitment and the business is requiring you to do certain tasks.

But FDM Group is not the only company to structure its graduate programme in this way; I've also seen this at Capita, and it might well be common in the outsourcing/consultancy business (though Atos apparently doesn’t follow this model, and Sion Elias from IG Group (in the presentation in week four) explicitly said that their graduate trainees have permanent paid contracts from their first day). I also have to acknowledge that those I met at FDM group, and the consultant who came to visit our third-year undergraduates a week later, were positive about their experience; maybe these large outsourcing companies do meet a need, finding those not able to market their skills directly and providing them with the environment they need to flourish. In any case, I am pleased to have been offered opportunity to see inside the recruitment process; I think it’s given me some insight to both sides of the interview table.

And then after all that, I went off to Borough Market, and had a delicious lunch box from Ethiopean Flavours (mmm, injera) for lunch on my way back to College.