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Shrinking talent pool creates massive recruitment problems

25 Jul 2008

The shortage of graduates with the right skills is a major problem for companies looking to recruit in large numbers. Dawn Ohlson of Thales UK talks to OLE about the extent and origin of the problem.

With 68,000 employees, of which 22,000 are high-level researchers, Thales describes itself as a leader in mission-critical information systems for the aerospace, defence and security markets. The company has its roots in France but is truly international with a presence in 50 countries. Thales's second-largest operation is in the UK, which accounts for more than 15% of the company's consolidated workforce. As director of educational affairs, Dawn Ohlson is at the front line of Thales's recruitment efforts across the UK.

What does your role involve?
There are three phases to my role. Firstly, I am responsible for all of our outreach activities that try to inspire children to think about science and engineering. The next phase is to encourage people who are studying subjects such as mathematics and physics at university to join Thales. Once they have joined us, my next job is to help them through their professional qualifications, such as chartered physicist.

How many new graduates do you try to attract every year and what selection processes do you use?
We look to take on around 100, although this coming year the target is 120. Recruiting 120 graduates is far harder than it sounds. We have about 70 acceptances so far for our current campaign. We see thousands of CVs and typically employ one person for every 40 CVs.

Our first test is a CV sift where we lose a lot of people because they do not have a permit to work in the UK or because they simply do not come close to having the right academic qualifications. Candidates need to have an A-level in mathematics and physics at a good grade.

We also run online numeracy and literacy tests, and conduct telephone interviews. It is amazing how many people we lose out of the pipeline at that stage. By the time we get to assessment days where we get groups in for a whole day, we would be looking to employ 1.5 out of every two candidates. By the time we reach this point, we are looking at the right kind of people.

Why do think there is a shortage of graduates with the required skills?
The problems start at an early age. Children are not being enthused about science, with the knock-on effect that the pool of talent emerging from university is decreasing. Age-old stereotypes that engineers get their hands dirty are crippling. We have to plant the seed with young children before those stereotypes take root. We need to educate the next generation of talent.

There has been an influx of foreign students into our universities and this makes up the numbers, but UK defence-related work requires European citizenship. I have close links with all of our counterparts (such as QinetiQ, BAE Systems and Rolls Royce) and we are all suffering the same problem. We are all fishing for the top 10–15% of a steadily decreasing pool.

How do you solve the skills shortage problem?
It is difficult for us to solve this as one company cannot make much impact on its own. I think that it is unfair to leave it either to industry or to the universities – we need to work together. There are many initiatives but it is a constant uphill battle. There is a lot more to it than a lack of the right people with the right skills. When you look at the links in the chain, you find that many need attention and the problem is not going to be solved in the short term.

Where do the problems lie and how are you addressing them?
We go into schools and give career presentations, and we are formalizing our links with senior and junior schools. But here again we see a problem. I do a lot of these talks and you often find that you are educating the teachers as well as the children. We offer career teachers placements within Thales so that they can get an idea of what it is like in an engineering company. At our site in Glasgow, we recently had 20 local physics teachers come in to see the technology that was on their doorstep.

The quality and quantity of teachers is always going to be an issue but schools are also struggling to get the right people. We have been involved in the steering group of the UK government's Transition to Teaching programme. The idea here is to encourage people in industry who are looking for another career to consider teaching. The company would then support that person throughout their training.

We have very good relationships with key universities such as Loughborough and Surrey. We also have visiting professors at universities who are trying to adapt courses not just to our needs at Thales UK but to industry in general.

What is your ideal candidate?
We will consider anyone with the right background qualifications because we can't afford to say a blanket "no". We will look at degrees from physics, pure mathematics and astronomy right through to aerospace engineering. If the candidate is the right sort of person then we can fill the gaps with strong management and our graduate programme. It's getting them interested in the first place that is the challenge.

• This article originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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