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What do firms do with graduates once they have recruited them?

March 2020

Activity, analysis and debate about graduate careers often focuses on the initial transition to work. But graduates get jobs to build careers and progress, so what happens after they arrive in a firm, asks Tristram Hooley

While students are at university there is inevitably a lot of focus on getting a (graduate) job. This can mean that thinking about careers and employability gets narrowed down to consideration of how to manage recruitment processes. For students this creates an odd dynamic where getting a job is all important, but there is very little discussion about what the job will involve and almost none about how to manage your career once you have been employed.

The Institute of Student Employers (ISE) has just published Student Development 2020, a new report looking at the learning and development, progression and retention of students who work for graduate employers.1

What is a graduate programme?

Graduate programmes are put in place by firms to integrate new hires into the organisation and to train them in both the technical skills that they need for their job and in broader business skills and awareness. Where they are done well graduate programmes should accelerate the career development of graduates. On average firms are spending £5,739 on the development of every new hire that they recruit. So, what is this money spent on?

Most firms start with an induction programme that lasts for six days. This is the beginning of a programme that usually (in two-thirds of firms) lasts for two years and sees hires receiving an average of 19 days training a year. The most common approaches that are used in graduate programmes are classroom learning (used by 94% of firms), online learning (88%), mentoring (82%), peer-learning (79%) and rotating graduates between different business functions (79%).

The purpose of these activities is to try and build graduates' capabilities in a range of areas. Figure 1 shows that while there is a strong focus on both job-specific technical skills and commercial awareness, most of the focus in on more generic skills relating to communicating and working with others. It is also notable that 73% of employers are supporting graduates to actively manage their careers.

Skills,Percentage of employers
Presentation skills,84
Commercial awareness,81
Job specific technical skills,79
Negotiation and influencing skills,76
Interpersonal skills,75
Taking responsibility,74
Career management,73
Self awareness,72
Business appropriate communication,71
Dealing with conflict,71
Problem solving,70
Emotional intelligence,70
Time management,64
Managing up,59
IT and digital skills,51
Staying positive,49
Data handling data analysis,43
Excel skills,40
Dressing appropriately,31

What happens after a graduate programme?

Once firms have invested in students through graduate programmes they are keen to retain them. Employers participating in this survey reported relatively high average levels of retention as can be seen in figure 2 which shows how the retention of graduate hires plays out over the first five years of their employment.

Career stage,Retention rate
End of programme,86
3 years,72
5 years,57

Concerningly firms reported that it was more difficult to retain some types of hire than others, with a quarter (25%) of firms reporting that it is harder to retain women and slightly less than a fifth (17%) reporting that it is harder to retain people from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background.

Why do graduates leave their first job?

Given how hard graduates have worked to secure their first job it is interesting to think about why they ultimately leave and move on from these roles. We asked the firms responding to our survey to identify the three most common reasons why graduates leave.

Over half of firms (52%) identified that graduates moved because they wanted to change career. This suggests that there would be value in providing students with greater insights into the jobs that they are pursuing to give them a greater chance of picking the right career. This was emphasised by the fact that 16% of employers reported that graduates leave because the job or company wasn't what they expected and 15% because they are returning to learning.

Others highlighted that their graduates were moving to get better opportunities within the same field either by being 'poached' by another company (39%) or because they were dissatisfied with progression within the firm (31%) or unable to find the right role within the company (24%). Only 27% of firms reported that dissatisfaction with pay was one of the main reasons for students leaving, but this may be because the median salary that firms reported hires were earning after three years was £40,000 which puts them well above average.

Generally, these findings suggest that graduates are making positive moves after their first job, either moving to new careers or progressing within their current careers. However, a minority of employers reported that poor performance was a common reason for hires leaving (17%), that they faced family issues (13%), issues with their mental health (6%) or a desire for more meaningful work (5%) or better work/life balance (4%).

Final thoughts

Taken together these findings give us some useful insights on how graduates progress through and beyond graduate schemes. There is clearly a need to spend more time educating and informing students about work and career in addition to providing them with support to manage recruitment and selection processes. Employers are keen to invest in students, to develop them and progress them in their firms. Universities need to work closely with employers to ensure that students are well prepared and informed about the opportunities that are available to them.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects


  1. Student development survey 2020: Supporting the learning and development of entry-level hires, Institute of Student Employers, 2020.

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