As the NHS graduate scheme reopens on 8 October, Rachel Potter asks who will be the NHS managers of the future
Juggling the needs of patients and staff against a tough backdrop of financial pressures and systemic change, managers in the NHS don’t have an easy ride. Despite this, there are plenty of young (and not so young) graduates keen to take up the challenge. The NHS graduate management scheme opens again on 8th October, and more than 12,000 people are expected to apply for between 100 and 150 places.
It’s consistently one of the most popular graduate management schemes, so why does it appeal to so many aspiring leaders? Rob Farace runs the scheme for England, based at the NHS Leadership Academy (other programmes cover the rest of the UK). He says there isn’t a “template” for the ideal candidate, and all sorts of people apply, including new graduates, people working in the health service and others looking for a career change. “Your background is immaterial – it’s more about the passion you have for the NHS.”
Elliott Weathoff recently graduated from the scheme and is now a project manager at North Bristol NHS Trust, re-designing services for patients with long-term health conditions. He is looking strategically at the whole patient pathway, from GP services to acute and community care, with the aim of improving the patient experience and reducing the length of hospital stays.
Elliott was drawn to the scheme through his own experiences as a patient. “I was born with a heart defect so I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals and GP surgeries,” he says. “I believe that my experiences as a patient have really shaped the way I work as a manager. I try to bring a patient’s perspective to every bit of work I do.”
Successful applicants take part in a two-year programme of training and placements. They specialise in either finance, human resources, general management or health informatics (which covers data collection, storage, analysis, and providing intelligence to support decision-making).
There are two long NHS placements and one eight-week placement in a relevant outside organisation. From the very start the trainees work on projects that have a real impact on productivity and efficiency. They also complete a postgraduate certificate in healthcare leadership.
One of the obvious draws, says Rob Farace, is the employability of the graduates. “Even in the current climate there are a huge number of opportunities for them. They build up a substantial network of contacts, and taking part in the scheme is a bit like a two-year job interview.”
The need to demonstrate value for money is taken very seriously. It’s expensive to put a graduate through the programme, but the investment soon pays back. In 2011, a methodology was introduced that works out each trainee’s individual return, demonstrating that each one generates tens of thousands of pounds of savings. In one example, a trainee saved £74,000 by improving systems and productivity during a placement. Retention is also very good, with most participants committed to the NHS.
Tom Lindley is halfway through the general management scheme. A qualified mental health nurse, he became interested in the business side of the health service and has ambitions to work at executive director level. He says that the trainees are far from naïve about the challenges they will face joining the organisation at a time of immense change.
“We understand the financial pressures. It’s challenging but it also provides a real learning opportunity, and I’m keen to embrace the positive aspects too. Yes, we have exposure to difficult situations, but it’s also an opportunity to develop new and exciting ways of working.”
Tom is currently on a short placement with a management consultancy, supporting the work of a large acute NHS trust. His first placement, which lasted for a year, saw him working as a project manager in a community and mental health trust. Later he will spend 10 months in the commercial and international innovation team at NHS England.
“I’m passionate about the NHS, and feel I owe them something for putting me through this scheme. I’m really happy to be able to invest my enthusiasm back into an organisation that has already given me so much.”
Graduate Elliott Weathoff agrees. “The NHS gets a lot of bad publicity but there’s so much good work going on. As trainees we can come into the organisation with a fresh pair of eyes and ask naïve questions that no-one else asks about why things are done in a certain way. The graduate scheme teaches you to ask why, and gives you the techniques for making improvements.”