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The graduate

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Graduates used to head to investment firms and big company training schemes, while estate agents were recruited from the ranks of school leavers and career changers. But now, more and more firms are taking on graduates; and more and more graduates want a career in residential agency.

Look at any of the graduate recruitment websites and you can see a number of estate agency jobs for graduates – not just in the big corporates, but also in smaller firms, particularly in London and the southeast.

More property graduates are applying for residential roles. Why? because it’s more fun, but also because residential is now seen as an investment asset equal to commercial.

Ana Hutchinson, who heads estate agency recruitment at Deverell Smith, says that three-quarters of all applicants to jobs the agency handles are graduates. (That’s quite a representative sample, Deverell Smith recruits for all kinds of firms, from boutiques to major corporates.) Interestingly, graduates are often successful in getting those jobs, but with a significant caveat, she says. “Applicants with proven life experience are preferred – they need to be streetwise and able to hold their own. Employers will ask have they had a gap year, do they have work experience?”

Graduates are great, but I prefer those who have worked too – even in a bar; it builds resilience and an ability to communicate. Ben Toocaram, Marsh & Parsons.

Ben Toocaram imageAbout half the graduates who apply via Deverell Smith do have the work experience she’s looking for, but the other half will find it tough securing employment. Benjamin Toocaram, Head of Recruitment for Marsh & Parsons, admits to a sinking feeling when he sees high-achieving graduates with straight As who haven’t done any work experience. “On paper they look great, but sometimes they don’t communicate well with the public.” He prefers graduates who, for instance, have worked in a bar – as he did himself at one point, so he knows what he’s talking about when he says, “that kind of experience builds the resilience and ability to communicate with all sorts of people that we’re looking for.”

The relevant degree Universities are offering an increasing number of property related degree courses, but few residential estate agents require a relevant degree. Ana Hutchinson says applications come from students in a wide variety of disciplines. In the property world, the majority of the people she’s worked with don’t have property related degrees, though many are graduates. (She has a business related but not specifically property degree, which she took alongside her job, and says; “the big thing it’s given me is confidence.”) In fact, a property specific qualification can be a hindrance.

Graduate applicants have a wide range of degrees – we tend to hire more on attitude than the particular degree they have. Bruce Evans, Countrywide.

Bruce Evans image“Some agencies will actually be deterred from taking someone with a property degree,” she says, “wondering whether they really want to be a surveyor, and whether residential is going to be boring for them.” While large corporates often do prefer relevant qualifications, because they have many different career channels to offer, smaller firms that can’t offer commercial work or an APC (assessment of professional competence) route tend not to. Bruce Evans, London & New Starts Managing Director, Countrywide Residential Lettings, confirms this. “We find that people doing property related degrees are more into commercial programmes, but among our applicants and trainees there’s a very wide range – history, politics, psychology, marketing and business – we tend to hire more on attitude than their particular degree.”

He also looks for evidence of work experience, whether that’s from internships, summer or part-time jobs or volunteer programmes, because, he says, “The team ethic is very important, and a degree based on individual study doesn’t necessarily deliver that.”

Marsh & Parsons does things a little differently. Toocaram says their recruiting does focus on universities with property courses, though they recruit graduates from all disciplines. “We’ve hired a few graduates from Cirencester,” he says – the Royal Agricultural University has a real estate course; “a lot of them have come from farms and they may end up spending their later life on a farm, but they want to come to London and experience London life, and they’ve got a great attitude – roll their sleeves up and get stuck in.” Marsh & Parsons also trawl their net at Reading, Exeter and other universities with strong property credentials.

Yes, Toocaram admits, some of the property graduates eventually head off to Savills or one of the other multidisciplinary firms to do their APC and have a career in surveying. But in the meantime, they’re working hard and contributing to Marsh & Parsons’ success – every graduate is placed in a job as soon as they arrive.

Get on the programme

Residential has been the poor relation when it comes to graduate trainee schemes. Strutt & Parker operates a graduate trainee scheme across the firm, but not in its residential agency operations, and it’s not the only one to make that distinction.

But Ana Hutchinson says things are changing. She’s seen more property graduates applying for roles in residential. Why? “Because it’s fun,” she says; more seriously, because “residential is now seen as an equivalent investment asset to commercial, and with central London property prices rising strongly, it’s an attractive market to start a career in.”

Recruiters have changed, too, she says, “The big companies didn’t go to universities and talk about residential,” she says – they focused on their commercial property divisions – “but now they do.” She’s even come across one small boutique that offers an APC route, “because the market is so competitive.”

Countrywide has been running its graduate programme for four years, initially focusing on a few universities; but it’s now widening its net. Evans says “this year we’ll try a couple of new things, like recruitment fairs, and see if it makes a difference.” Having four years’ worth of current and former trainees to take with them is a big advantage in putting the message across.

The numbers

It’s a competitive market; Countrywide gets 350 online applications, which it whittles down by a progression of online test, phone interviews, face to face interviews, and a final assessment day, to a dozen or so offers, which translates to ten graduates actually turning up for work. (They always lose a couple to big company training schemes like Marks & Spencer, which, Evans says, he’s quite happy to lose out to; it shows he’s getting good applicants if M&S is prepared to take them on.)

Marsh & Parsons takes on a similar number of graduates – between ten and fifteen a year – but according to Ben Toocaram, that could easily triple over the next five years. “We’ve been dipping our toes in the water,” he says, “but we’ll move forwards from here.”

Graduates don’t have a privileged life once they’ve been hired. According to Hutchinson, they often start at similar levels to non-graduates, and have the same prospects. That’s certainly the case at Marsh & Parsons, where a graduate who joins the firm as a lettings negotiator will be put on the same salary basis as other negotiators, including a commission element. “They’re not just trainees, they’re here to do a job,” Ben Toocaram says. And they tend to advance within the same stream, not hopping around the company, “Our training is very specific to the role,” Ben Toocaram says, “and we try to fit them to where we think they’ll do well, rather than rotating them through jobs.” So a graduate career looks pretty like a non-graduate career in terms of salary and progression.”

Evans says graduates do get one big benefit in Countrywide, which is that the trainee programme gives them a network of support across the firm, both within and outside the specific area they’re working in. They are more visible to senior management, too.

But, he says, the success of Countrywide’s graduate trainee scheme has made Countrywide better at managing their staff’s training and career progression across the board.

“We don’t limit the opportunities to graduates,” he says. “We’ve realised from the graduate programme that we need to offer these opportunities for training and progression to all our people.” Countrywide now runs a management programme, and just in his own part of the business, has sent 45 people though in the last couple of years.

Business benefits

But what do raw graduates bring to the party? One thing Toocaram values is their very rawness. “Graduates can be moulded,” he says, whereas people who have previously worked for another agent may have learned different ways of doing things, and “it can be difficult to change their mindset.” That’s important for a firm like Marsh & Parsons which has a strong culture of its own.

Graduate entrants also bring a younger demographic – in the lettings side of the business, Ben Toocaram says, they’re renting to people in their own age group. Sometimes, he says, when he’s mystery shopping for Marsh & Parsons – another aspect of his job – he walks into a competitor’s branch only to find himself 20 years younger than any of the sales staff.

They bring a different attitude to business, as well. Evans says, “graduates, indeed all millennials, have a huge passion for customer service.” But it’s important for the firm to be willing to learn from graduates to get the most out of them; while the firm may be training the graduates to do the job, it needs to listen to them, too.

One young graduate in the Countrywide scheme impressed the managers with her commitment to high quality service. At the end of her training programme, the firm asked her to set up a customer service department, now she’s been running it for eighteen months. “They’re intelligent enough to see where the problems are and sort it out,” Bruce Evans says. That’s a resource that would be stupid to waste.

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