Competition among leading employers to attract the best graduate recruits is increasingly intense. Companies realise it is no longer enough to simply set out their wares at campus events for final-year students, relying on a standard sales pitch about training opportunities and promises of long-term career development.
Instead, they must be ready to start earlier and offer more in terms of internships, real work experience, and helping candidates to get to know the organisation.
"To be the best firm, we need the best people, we must be innovative in what we do to attract them," says Melissa Wu, KPMG's partner in charge of human resources for China. "It is also important for us to understand what the younger generation wants and find a way to meet those expectations."
With this in mind, she has helped launch an elite two-year programme, which gives university students in Hong Kong and the mainland the chance to train and work with KPMG in four separate spells before they graduate.
There are mutual benefits. The paid internship exposes students to the practicalities of life with a major firm. And the employer gains by seeing potential recruits in action, and puts high-calibre candidates on the fast track to full-time graduate trainees.
The programme began in mid-2010 by welcoming more than 300 first- and second-year students from top mainland universities. The numbers admitted in future intakes is likely to increase.
During the first summer, the focus is on intensive training in business fundamentals. KPMG instructors and other senior professionals cover the essential skills and knowledge required by the firm's junior staff. They also stress the importance of an ethical approach to business and explain what it takes to operate successfully in a "borderless" international environment.
The following January, to coincide with the firm's busiest time of the year, the students return to undertake closely supervised assignments, mostly related to audit work and general client transactions. That pattern will then repeat for a second year, with the students continuing to get classroom training, hands-on experience, and actual client contact as an active member of an audit or advisory team.
"The first batch did their initial training last year, mainly in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, but it could be with any of our 13 China offices," Wu says. "The feedback so far is that students love the programme. They find it difficult, but challenging, and don't mind giving up their holidays. You'd be surprised how keen they are."
She adds that by combining the technical aspects of audit work with broader business skills, the various steps mirror those taken by "normal" recruits joining after graduation. This allows the elite programme to serve as an effective screening process and a potential short cut to permanent roles.
Those who perform up to the expected standards will be invited to discuss career prospects with a partner, would receive a job offer well before graduation, and could look forward to a small financial incentive on actually joining.
"It works for both the firm and the students to make offers early," Wu says. "That's why we regard the elite programme as a strategic initiative, even though our other internship opportunities and recruitment processes will continue as before."
She notes that the next formal intake starts this month. In principle, applicants can be from any academic discipline. They should expect, though, to take an aptitude test in a classroom environment to assess basic numerical and verbal reasoning skills and to have an HR interview. Students who attend universities not specifically targeted by KPMG can always go online to register.
"We need a diversified group of people and want to have the best, regardless of discipline or degree," Wu says. "We also look at what applicants do outside their studies."
In setting up the programme, the firm paid close attention to the results of a special in-house survey into the outlook and attitudes of today's job-seeking generation.
It confirmed that students planning for the first step in their career are generally eager, focused and passionate to achieve. In choosing their employers, they are looking for professional development and training, and early opportunities for promotion. With these in mind, the elite programme emphasises the expectations and possibilities that come with a high-performance culture, something KPMG clearly knows all about as a winner at the Leading Graduate Employer Awards last year.
"Going forward, there may be room for more collaboration with the universities," Wu says.