Many of the UK's leading employers offer dedicated training programmes for those with a degree - discover the benefits of joining a graduate scheme in 2023, what's involved and how to go about securing your place

What is a graduate scheme?

A graduate scheme is a structured training programme run by an employer to develop future leaders of their organisation. They usually last between one and two years (although they can be longer).

These graduate programmes are typically available in a number of specialisms, or streams as they're also known, ranging from finance, retail and marketing, to HR, management and law.

What does a graduate programme involve?

The scheme may be focused on a job role or split into time-specific placements, such as spending six months at a time rotating across various business functions, teams and possibly locations. This means that a large degree of flexibility is required.

As a graduate trainee you'll benefit from being handed responsibility from the outset, an opportunity to gain hands-on experience and develop a broad understanding of your chosen profession, as well as receiving support in building key skills.

Schemes are generally oversubscribed each year, with places limited - especially those offered by high profile companies in major industries. You'll therefore have to ensure your application stands out from those submitted by other candidates.

How much will I be paid?

High Fliers' The Graduate Market in 2022 report revealed that the most generous payers from The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers are investment banks, law firms, consulting firms, oil and energy companies, and banking and finance organisations.

These top employers offer salaries of at least £38,000, with investment bankers able to earn £50,000.

Which companies run graduate schemes?

With graduate schemes spanning numerous careers and industries, you'll have plenty of options when it comes to choosing an employer:

  • Agriculture - Work experience is essential for those looking to enter the agriculture industry, with larger employers such as AB Agri and the National Farmers' Union (NFU) providing training for those seeking graduate opportunities in agriculture.
  • Charity - While rarer in this sector, some organisations still run schemes. Read more about getting a graduate charity job.
  • Energy and utilities - The oil and gas industry is always on the lookout for new recruits to work in their manufacturing, technical, commercial and corporate operations, while there's also the option of getting a graduate job in nuclear energy.
  • Finance - All the major banks, including Barclays, the Lloyds Banking Group and HSBC, have dedicated finance graduate schemes, with finance specialists in demand across all sectors.
  • Healthcare/management - If you're looking to work in the healthcare sector at management level, you could consider working for the National Health Service (NHS) by joining the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme. General management programmes are also available, including consulting graduate schemes.
  • Human resources (HR) - Many large organisations including Balfour Beatty, BP and Royal Mail require graduates to work in their busy personnel departments. See HR graduate schemes.
  • Information technology (IT)/sales - Graduate training programmes are also run by IT and telecommunications companies such as Google, Microsoft, BT and EE in technical and sales-based roles. Read about the UK's IT industry and the companies that run sales graduate schemes.
  • Law - By following a structured route into the legal profession, you can take advantage of training contracts.
  • Marketing/media - Another popular and far-reaching field, you could work for a major media company such as the BBC, Sky or Virgin Media. There are also general marketing graduate schemes available across all sectors.
  • Public services/intelligence - If you're interested in getting a graduate job in public services you'll find a number of schemes are available through governmental departments, the intelligence services and the armed forces.
  • Retail - The UK's biggest retailers, including Aldi, Boots, Next and Marks & Spencer, train their staff through structured retail graduate schemes typically split across various customer-facing and head office roles.
  • Transport - Aer Lingus, British Airways (BA), easyJet and Virgin Atlantic seek graduates for their commercial, finance and IT-related airline graduate schemes. You could also consider road and railway careers.

Where can I find out more about employer programmes?

If you've an interest in working for a specific company, in addition to visiting its website you can also follow it on social media. By engaging with the recruiter through popular channels such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram, you can get a good idea of its culture and values.

By attending in-person or virtual careers fairs and recruitment events while still at university, you'll get to find out about employers you'd be interested in working for and speak to recent graduates about what's involved with a particular scheme.

When do graduate schemes open?

In most cases, you'll be able to apply to join a programme from the end of your second year (June-onwards), with deadlines usually set for the November or December of that year.

However, it's advisable to apply as early as possible, as some organisations fill places on an ongoing basis and close as soon as they're full.

How do I apply?

The first stage of applying for a scheme is often similar to applying for graduate jobs - you'll be expected to fill out an online job application. Guidance relating to CVs and cover letters may also still come in handy.

After this, it's worth delving into interview tips, assessment centres and psychometric tests, as these are usually considered key stages of the selection process.

Many employers also now use social media to share helpful and informal advice with candidates about all aspects of your application. For example, at the NHS, this ranges from current trainees giving tips on how they prepared for their assessment centre, to alumni sharing general advice on interviews and the graduate team offering pointers on passing online tests.

For information on setting up relevant accounts and how to go about networking with current graduates, see social media and job hunting.

Can I get on a graduate scheme with a 2:2?

While graduate programmes generally expect applicants to have a 2:1 or higher, some employers may be more flexible - for example, the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme and all of MBDA's graduate programmes ask for a 2:2.

If you get invited to interview, be prepared to discuss your grade with recruiters. Be positive by highlighting your strength in other areas, and by emphasising work experience or extra-curricular activities that demonstrate you've got the skills employers want. To prepare, you can also run through some example questions and answers.

When do graduate schemes start?

Start dates for these programmes are usually set for the August or September following graduation, but this does vary as some employers take on new recruits as soon as a vacancy is available.

Will I be offered a permanent job?

It's quite common for graduates to be offered a permanent role upon completion of the scheme, but this is by no means the case with all employers. Therefore, you'll need to check the programme you're applying for to find out where you'll stand afterwards.

What if I don't like my graduate scheme?

According to the Institute of Student Employers' (ISE) Student Recruitment Survey 2021, the competition for graduate jobs reached a record high (since 1999 when data was first collected), with a typical firm receiving 91 applications for every vacancy they're advertising.

Therefore, due to such a clamour for places, the dropout rate for graduate schemes will understandably be low. However, if you do decide that the scheme isn't for you, take time to reassess the situation.

One of the most common reasons for leaving a scheme within the first year is to make a career change, with conversion courses and professional training offering routes into other industries. Read up on how to find a job.

Alternatively, you could contemplate taking a gap year to think about things and experience a new culture.

As you plan your next move, you might wish to revisit choosing a career and explore what can I do with my degree?

Find out more

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