Case study: Launching an academy at recruitment firm VHR

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When traditional talent pools weren’t really working out, VHR decided to 'grow its own' by training people with no prior industry experience

The organisation

VHR is a global technical recruitment organisation serving the aerospace and aviation, Formula 1 and automotive, engineering, and defence and marine industries across 45 countries. It was created in 2003 and delivers end-to-end recruitment services.

Accolades VHR has won include The Queen’s Award for Enterprise (International Trade), the Institute of Directors’ Global Director of the Year (for CEO Danny Brooks), and – most recently – a high commendation in the Best learning and development strategy category at this year’s HR Excellence Awards.

The problem

“It’s very difficult to hire good experienced recruiters who are going to stay.” So says Isabella Patsalou, learning and development manager at VHR, regarding the motivation behind the firm launching its own Academy in January 2018.

This talent dearth was a particular problem for VHR in light of its ambitious growth plans. The business’ aim is to double its turnover to £70 million within the next five years and increase its employee base to 150.

Graduates didn’t generally stay with the company long enough, reports recruitment lead Rebecca Fagan: “We did do a grad scheme where we went to a graduate day. We employed four people and not one is still here, because after six months to a year they decided to pursue something in what they’d graduated in.”

Though there have been some notable successes (Fagan herself started as an apprentice), it was a similar story with apprenticeships. “We were getting quite a lot of turnover,” she reports.

The method

And so the VHR Academy was born, with the aim of finding eight individuals with no previous experience in recruitment who could be developed into the type of consultants the firm needed. The target was to retain at least six of them following the six-month probation period (and the nine-month training period).

“It’s easier to make them live and breathe VHR this way rather than taking them from other companies and trying to train them in what we do,” says Fagan.

Passion and potential were the focus during interviews for the Academy. “It was getting people who were excited by recruitment,” says Fagan. “A lot of the people had no recruitment experience and weren’t graduates but had a passion for one of our sectors,” adds Patsalou. “For example one came in and was really excited by motor sport because his family have been involved in it for years.”

Language skills were also a focus, with 72% of VHR’s turnover derived from outside of the UK and new geographical markets a key part of the firm’s growth plans – particularly in light of uncertainty around Brexit and consequently VHR’s future trading status in Europe.

Even before the interviewing stage VHR put significant work into preparing the scheme. The business hired a specialist development coach six months prior to the Academy’s launch to create the training programme.

Recognising that recruits would need their own space to learn, in VHR also invested in a new property adjacent to the London head office.

Once eight recruits had been whittled down from 50 candidates and taken on, the programme consisted initially of a 13-week training plan, with two hours spent in the classroom each day and the rest applying what they’d learned back in the office. This 13 weeks focused on the delivery side of the business to ensure recruits were exposed to all the sectors VHR works in.

“The first month is very training intensive… but workshops are still quite short,” says Patsalou. “What I’ve found with these guys is their attention span is a lot shorter, because maybe they haven’t been to university, they’re not used to that much theoretical study, so after two hours you lose them.

“The plan originally was to keep them in the Academy building for as much of the training as possible but there was an issue with the technology,” she adds. “But actually that was a benefit, because we then realised that by keeping them locked away they’re not exposed to everyone around them and that’s how they learn.”

Trainees received weekly one to ones with Patsalou, Fagan or divisional director of recruitment operations Ian Preddy, with training often delivered by VHR’s senior consultants and coaching by managers in the business.

“All the managers said they enjoy the mentoring and coaching,” says Patsalou. “I think they all feel responsible for their success. They start to spot protégés too – we say to them they need to identify people from the Academy they want to bring into their teams.”

Recruits have targets from day one, which are lenient at first and build as they progress. “The probation is scored by how many calls they’ve made, how many CVs they’ve sent, and how many placements they’ve made,” reports Fagan.

“What’s great is it’s really transparent,” says Patsalou. “In the weekly one on ones we can go through their probation tracker, which is basically a spreadsheet. We can go through how they’re feeling and any challenges.”

Recruits are paid £20,000 from day one. After 13 weeks of training they spend their time embedding on the delivery side of the business, before moving to sales at the nine-month mark and receiving new business training lasting three months.

The result

The initiative has been so successful that VHR is now onto its third cohort. Out of the first crop of eight recruits, four are still at firm now; out of the second cohort six stayed. This surpassed VHR’s expectations, a factor in the third iteration consisting of six rather than eight trainees to ensure the company can accommodate them once they start working within the business. To this end VHR has also decided to run two Academies a year rather than three as originally planned.

The ROI on these hires is impressive. VHR has calculated that the average cost of one conventional new hire is £3,000 and that the average cost to SMEs of replacing an employee is £11,000. This means it has saved £14,000 for every person recruited and retained through the Academy.

“We more or less tripled the spend on their salaries and the resources in terms of the return,” says Fagan. “So it was definitely successful. There was no point doing it if we made a loss.”

VHR is a great example of what can be achieved – both for a company and for individuals from a social mobility perspective – with a more open-minded approach.

“I worked in the City for some of the bigger recruiters and I think they’re still very much of the mind that employees need a degree,” says Patsalou. “But they’re not necessarily proven to be more successful. If anything these guys [the Academy recruits] are more motivated to prove themselves, more determined.”

The figures certainly demonstrate this. Five out of eight of the first cohort exceeded their performance targets in their first month.

Two months into the second Academy three trainees exceeded their performance targets. In November 2018, with only nine weeks’ training, one Academy member reached more than 200% of their monthly target.

Crucially, the initiative has impacted VHR’s bottom line. In 2018 the company recorded its two most successful trading months (January and June) in its 15-year history, and January 2019 was its fourth-most successful month ever.

In terms of future plans, the team is constantly reviewing the programme to identify improvements, such as adding more video content.

“It’s constantly evolving,” says Patsalou. “This is just the start.”

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