GCHQ: Rising to the challenge of the graduate job market

Published: 09 May 2017

An uncertain economy, rapid changes in the job market and new expectations for career progression are making finding the right job tougher than ever for graduates. Employers are also competing for a finite pool of talent and struggling to retain them.  GCHQ is addressing the challenges head-on, for new graduates and throughout their ongoing careers.

graduate gchq

If you ask graduates what their single biggest concern in the current job market is, they will tell you it’s a lack of jobs in their field of study. But if you ask employers, they’ll often cite that there’s a lack of talent suitable for their roles. While some analysts put this down to a disparity between the subjects offered by academic institutions and what business and industry needs, more forward-thinking organisations like GCHQ choose a more practical approach.

“Employers view certain degree subject as ones they don’t want to see,” says GCHQ. “We want to get rid of ‘right or wrong’ degree thinking and look for things that are important to us; so many jobs we offer aren’t degree-specific.”

For example, GCHQ’s Software Technologists Engagement Programme (STEP) scheme accepts graduates from non-STEM degree backgrounds. This makes it more accessible and leads to a candidate – and employee - pool that is more diverse than other, more traditional, cyber career paths. Several other roles, including the organisation’s Future Leaders scheme, require no specific subject.

“We want to see transferable skills rather than fine details.”

“Recruiters should ensure their recruitment process gives the opportunity for people to join from a broad range of backgrounds,” GCHQ adds. “We want to see transferable skills rather than fine details.”

But for graduates who do choose a specialist subject, GCHQ makes sure the syllabus is a direct match to what is required in the workplace, working with a number of universities to certify MScs in cyber and related disciplines.

Quantity and quality

One problem for employers is that good graduates often receive offers from several employers. To ensure its chosen graduates choose them, GCHQ has more to offer than just a competitive starting salary.

"We’re selling more than a job; we’re selling a mission”

“We try to celebrate that as an employer we’re selling more than a job; we’re selling a mission,” GCHQ says. “Candidates are motivated by contributing to the public good by protecting the country. It’s an edge not many organisations can offer, except perhaps the military, certain branches of the civil service like the FCO, or charities.”

The converse of this is in a competitive market great vacancies can attract many applicants and not all of them may be suitable for the role. While there are always some people who have a go regardless of suitability, GCHQ believes proper communication can reduce the majority of discrepancies.

“We make our requirements clear by saying what we’re looking for and using appropriate messaging and language,” says GCHQ. “You need to look at how you’re marketing yourself and the campaign surrounding that.”

At the other end of the scale, some employers will dismiss more experienced candidates as overqualified, but GCHQ says it never considers anyone over-qualified for a job, and has very experienced people joining mid-career.

“GCHQ has a unique mission and offers a huge range of roles,” the organisation says. “Even if someone extremely qualified in their field joins us, they will find lots to learn and plenty of new opportunities to develop.” 

Growing in the role

Once employers have the right person in the role, keeping them in the organisation long enough to develop their careers can be tricky. A recent survey found millennials are likely to change jobs an average of four times before the age of 32. What can employers do to retain talent and allow people to grow or even change their careers within the same organisation?

“Employers can recognise that people want different things at different points in their careers. Some employers lose out as they don’t have the capacity,” says GCHQ. “Because of our flexibility in things like working patterns, support, training and extracurricular activity, we can grow and change as the individual grows and changes.”

GCHQ says employers need to be dynamic. For its part, GCHQ can offer staff a sabbatical, a career break or a secondment.  It recognises that employees can get significant benefits from spending a year with another government department, for example; benefits that stretch to the business as well as the individual.

GCHQ also offers training and membership of professional organisations like the Electrotechnical Certification Scheme (ECS) or the Institute of Engineering and technology (IET).

“If people can see that they’re growing and invested in at a professional level, they are more willing to grow their careers,” says GCHQ. “Some employers might see this as a risk that they’re making their staff more marketable and therefore more likely to leave, but we prefer to recognise that marketability as a positive.”

Future recruitment strategy

In light of the current economic situation, some areas of business are tightening their purse strings. However, employment experts are saying that instead of looking at cuts, now is the time to be talking about investment in people and in processes and equipment that will boost productivity and improve the resilience of businesses and our economy. It’s a policy GCHQ’s recruitment approach has embraced wholeheartedly.

“In the time I’ve been working I’ve seen a step change in recruitment,” agrees GCHQ. “We’ve moved so far towards development schemes, investing people from the bottom-up of their careers, such as trough apprenticeships but also our STEPS programme, Cyber Summer Schools and certifying MScs.

“There will always be a need not only for graduate talent but also mid-career, experienced people. We will always need different people to do different jobs,” concludes GCHQ.

If you'd like to find out more, visit GCHQ's Knowledge Hub here.

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