One of the conundrums of our national unemployment challenge is the lack of small and medium-sized businesses prepared to take on graduates, despite their availability in considerable numbers.  The RISE graduate internship scheme, currently being piloted in Sheffield, is a shining light amid the economic gloom that has the potential to be a sustainable model for other cities in the UK.

The vast majority of businesses in Sheffield are SMEs and, yet, only 18% of them employ graduates.  Government research suggests SMEs don’t know what graduates can bring, fear the costs (actual and developmental) and what is required to mentor effectively. Graduates don’t always consider SMEs as an option, perceive lower salaries and lack of opportunities for progression.

With two universities and the UK’s premier advanced manufacturing technology park, the city council is keen for local graduating students to remain living and working in Sheffield and to attract graduates from elsewhere to fuel the city’s economic growth.

The result has been a unique partnership of the universities, the council, the city’s economic development agency, the local Junior Chamber International, social enterprises supporting graduate recruitment and development, and a dedicated programme manager.  It has been a model of collaborative working and the speed of the process has been phenomenal.  Other cities are now expressing interest.

Over 700 brand new graduates (not just from Sheffield) applied for 30 internship places in June 2013.  150 people were invited to complete an online, automated video interview; encouragingly, the 550 who didn’t get selected each had written feedback and suggestions for improvement; 90 were selected to attend an assessment centre; and 70 put forward for interview with the SMEs.  Each of the applicants who didn’t make it through to the next stage received feedback in person.

The 30 successful candidates were announced before the end of July, some are about to start immediately and others over the summer. All the internships are paid and last between 6 and 12 months.  Many of the businesses have been so bowled over by the graduates during the recruitment process that they fully expect to offer permanent jobs at the end.  The businesses will also receive mentoring support.

I have been bowled over too as I had the privilege this week to play a small role in a business induction workshop run by Common Purpose held for the graduates just before they start their internships.  The focus was on getting their heads around leaping from being a full-time student a month ago to being a professional worker.

I’ve been helping to build their confidence and get them to think through what they will do at the start, during, at the end and after their internship to either ensure their role becomes permanent or as a stepping stone to something else.

A word or two about this amazing group of young people: one graduate was partially sighted and another severely deaf who had gone through the entire selection process with an interpreter using sign language; two engineering graduates had come to the UK from Italy and Spain simply to find work and had been successful despite the language difficulties – a heart-warming story of diversity, drive, and determination to make a success of their lives.

It remains to be seen how the interns get on over the next year and how many nail a job at the end, but all the signs are hugely positive.  They have been set up to succeed through this inspirational scheme by key players in the city who are immensely proud of its industrial past and keen to create its future heritage.

Do you want a “highly motivating and inspirational” speaker and facilitator (so say the RISE graduates) for your internship programme?  I can help your students to be clearer, more confident and better prepared as they enter the workplace.