Over the past year or so, the UK’s major accounting and professional services firms have all introduced innovative programmes targeting A-level leavers and apprentices as alternatives to traditional graduate recruitment. Following her recent triumph at the 2012 TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards, Ri5 caught up with Alison Heron, KPMG’s head of student recruitment (pictured, right, at the awards), to find out more about the brave new world of entry-level recruitment.

She starts by explaining how KPMG has reorganised its recruitment activities, to her evident satisfaction. “Up till the end of last year, we had separate teams looking after recruitment marketing – everything up to the point of application – and graduate recruitment,” she says. “A bit before then, around eighteen months ago, we’d also started to look at the schools sector, and wanted to get a dedicated team up and running by the end of 2011 as our schools programme started to develop and grow. Now, we’ve simply divided recruitment into two teams: one looking after experienced hires; the other – which I head up – looking after all forms of student recruitment, i.e. the schools, graduate and marketing activity.

“It’s put the recruitment marketing and operations sides together, and the bigger role is great for me. It’s also given me a bigger opportunity to help change students’ perceptions of KPMG, the professional services sector, the world of work in general, higher education and more.”

Alison sees herself primarily as a facilitator, helping to anticipate and meet the firm’s business needs in terms of entry-level resourcing. “We’ve got a big role to play,” she says. “We need to be one step ahead all the time – noting what’s going on in higher education, and locating the talent pools we should be looking into. And we absolutely want to cast our net more widely. It’s all about helping the business to understand what’s possible – and also to understand what some of these young people, such as school-leavers, will be like when they first come on to our premises.”

“Last year we were working very hard to recruit school-leavers. We’d done plenty in terms of providing support for the students, such as appointing ‘buddies’ for them and so on, but perhaps we hadn’t done quite enough in terms of providing support for the business.

“We always have to look at what’s feasible – which can mean monitoring things like the number of applications going through UCAS, for example. It’s possible that the graduate talent pool could get ever smaller. So, as a major corporate we have a big role to play in providing a range of options for people – different ways of getting into the business. It’s really all about change. As I say so often to people within the business, ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’.”

At present, it’s too early to tell how the balance between the various sourcing channels is likely to pan out in future – simply because the school-leaver scheme is a six-year programme, and the first intake only came on board last September. KPMG is also taking on its first ever apprentices for its risk consulting business, the initial intake for which will be this September. “It’s about bringing the right people in, and then providing them with the right career path and the right support,” says Alison.

Naturally, branding issues become more complex when you start looking at different audiences, and Alison feels that her own agency background (she formerly worked at Flag, with KPMG as her client) is very helpful in this respect. “We’ve got a good relationship with the brand team, built up over the years,” she says. “We do push them in terms of what we want to do, because we always want to be ahead of the game. Years ago, we were the first to go online-only with our application processes, for example; we were also one of the first to embrace social media.

“A lot of this is down to selling things effectively internally. Naturally, risk is a big thing for a firm like KPMG; we wouldn’t want to put brand reputation on the line. So when it comes to student recruitment, we have to make people understand the audiences we’re dealing with – they’re nothing like our clients. This means a lot of our focus is on adopting the right channels, and contacting potential recruits at the right time in the right ways. We’ve been running a ‘straight talking’ campaign, which I think is really ‘us’ – it’s not corporate in the stuffy way; it’s how we want to be represented. We’re always trying to push the brand, the corporate face of KPMG, in the right way for our markets.”

With KPMG winning ‘graduate employer of the year’ at the recent TARGETjobs awards, it was interesting to hear how Alison regarded the whole business of industry awards and employer rankings – were they just a reward for excellence, or objectives to be pursued in their own right? “It’s really a bit of both,” she says. “I have had bosses who’ve said to me, ‘What do we need to do to be number one?’ Of course I’d love KPMG to be top of the Times 100, but there’s a big budgetary factor in all this. It’s really nice to get the recognition, particularly for the team, but I think it’s dangerous to set yourself the objective of winning awards – you wouldn’t necessarily end up doing the right things in terms of strategy. In that sense, awards are really just the icing on the cake.”

Another key issue related to the broadening of entry routes – particularly when it involves talking to ever younger groups – is that of promoting the industry itself as a career destination, rather than just the individual players in it. “It becomes much more about the industry as a whole,” says Alison. “Just what is professional services? It’s incumbent on us to provide this kind of information much earlier, and all four of us (the ‘Big Four’) have met up to talk about what we might do in the schools space. But while our offerings might be essentially similar, our cultures are very different – and that’s when the later differentiation piece comes in.”

Alison is clearly passionate about the need for the sector as a whole to update its image. “One thing I want to do before I retire is change the ‘pale, stale, male’ image of the industry,” she says. “And going into schools earlier – primary as well as secondary – is one way of helping us to do this.”

With the desperate need for quality careers advice in schools, one thing that might encourage greater collaborative effort is the simple issue of resources. “Even a targeted approach involves contacting hundreds of schools,” says Alison, “and getting all the information across can be a huge job.”

However, despite the rapid broadening of access channels, Alison isn’t anticipating the end of traditional graduate recruitment as we all know and love it. “The situation is shifting slightly, but it’s just a balance thing,” she says. “It’s really just a question of adding different tools and channels in order to reach the different talent pools.”

KPMG is now working with sector skills partnerships, who’ve provided useful help in terms of talking to new audiences, and has also started working with Teach First (which aims to place exceptional graduates as new teachers in challenging schools – albeit not necessarily for the long term – and is itself on track to become the UK’s biggest recruiter of graduates).

“Things will be different for us all going forward,” says Alison. “We’ve already got student brand ambassadors on campus, and we’re also looking for ‘champions’ to go into target schools. It’s becoming a whole different world, and these relationships will be hugely important for us in the future. It’s an exciting time – it’s all about looking beyond what we’ve always been doing, and there are great opportunities for us out there.”