The Future, Now!

Nicholas Hill, CEO

By: Nicholas Hill

12th March 2020

5 minute read

During my first experience of the engineering workplace, as a sponsored thick-sandwich student with Marconi Radar Systems, it never would of occurred to me that selecting which students to accept onto the scheme would be something that managers might lose sleep over. At the time I remember feeling quite an insignificant cog in a massive machine, just another cohort of would be future employees.  I’ve just been looking through a number of applications for our own internship scheme and it struck me just how many factors might influence the choice of which candidate to select. Some of those factors are obvious, such as the need for ability, particular skills or potential performance in the role. Others are less obvious, such as alignment with the company’s values or diversity policy.

“These young people are the future of our company. In decades to come their outlook and world view will set the tone of the organisation, influence its culture and drive its behaviour.”

What is really important?
Due to the nature of the work that we do, we always look for candidates with exceptional technical ability and a keen interest in technology.  We are also looking for clear, open minded thinking and a willingness to challenge anything that doesn’t seem right.  We need people who are strongly self-driven, but able to work closely with others.  The pace and variety of our projects demands individuals who are quick to pick up an unfamiliar topic and learn fast.
This is a lot to ask for, but we also have a particular culture at Plextek that we need to preserve:

– supportive and collaborative rather than competitive;

– inclusive of different personality types and views;

– absent of office politics;

– based on peer respect rather than hierarchy.

There are clearly many factors to consider when reviewing potential interns.  I’ve picked out some examples that I hope will illuminate the complexity of our choices:

High Achieving: All of the applicants were very high achievers, but one in particular jumped out as an extremely high achiever: top grades at A-level, attending a top university and a multiple competition winner. Based on a strictly academic assessment this candidate would be the obvious choice.  By selecting the most competitive high performer, we’d help our business objective of beating our competitors by raising our own collective performance. On the other hand, this candidate was less strong in some attractive characteristics that were evident in other candidates.

Ethos: One applicant was appealing because of a clear focus on helping other people. In particular, they worked as a STEM ambassador to encourage younger students to pursue a career in engineering.  This is such an important activity, with far too many young people dropping STEM subjects at sixth form as ‘too hard’ and not seeing pursuing STEM subjects as a means to improve the world. The outlook that this candidate displayed aligned strongly with our values as an organisation.

Diversity in thought: A third applicant had chosen engineering as a way to make a positive impact in healthcare instead of pursuing what might be considered the default choice of medicine. This was interesting in itself. But they also worked hard to encourage young girls to consider physics and engineering, working against the prevalent culture bias that treats these as a ‘boy’s subjects’. This behaviour aligns strongly with our own outlook by promoting diversity in engineering.

Privilege: Some candidates had clearly come from privileged backgrounds and didn’t need the financial support of our scholarship scheme. For others it was clear their parents were of limited means and the sponsorship opportunity would mean they could support themselves financially, reducing worry for their families. This felt like an important factor to consider.

Leaders or Managers?  Two candidates talked about leading teams, both of which had achieved impressive results. However, while one described it as very much as an exercise in leadership, the other majored on the work that the team had done and what they had learned from the team during the project. The second of those felt rather more aligned with our own team ethos.

This is just a flavour of the many factors influencing the selection of candidates on a graduate scheme. While important, we shouldn’t treat this as a narrow exercise in gauging a person’s potential to deliver difficult technical work against tight deadlines. As these young people are the future of our company, in decades to come their outlook and world view will set the tone of the organisation, influence its culture and drive its behaviour. Suddenly this seems like a very big decision, and certainly not just another cohort of future employees.


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