In the summer of 2015, Associated British Foods UK Grocery (ABF) made the strategic decision to partner with Cohesion Recruitment to deliver their Graduate Recruitment Programme.

Michelle McDonald, Client Relationship Manager and Deborah Edmondson, Talent Director at Cohesion tell of their aim to find the best future talent for the business, whilst providing a market-leading candidate experience.

Associated British Foods is a diversified international food, ingredients & retail group with over 124,000 employees and a presence in 48 countries. The UK Grocery division is made up of a number of food businesses, and across the seven graduate schemes provided, the breadth and variety of candidate requirements is considerable.

We know that the graduate market is becoming increasingly candidate- led; graduates have more choices and opportunities, and offer reneging is on the increase. Candidate engagement is also at the top of everyone’s agenda. According to the AGR Annual Survey 2016, the time from application to offer is becoming longer and longer (currently sitting at 10 weeks), and companies are finding that their best candidates are dropping off the radar. Cohesion and ABF were therefore aligned so the delivery of a first-class recruitment process from application to offer would not only make the organisation more attractive to candidates, but also engage candidates in the process early on and, in doing so, potentially reduce reneging of offers.

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Sustain; maintain

The ABF recruitment process is a testament to the fact that using more modernised, interactive techniques allows recruiters to keep graduates engaged throughout the recruitment process. In many processes, graduates don’t actually speak to a member of the recruitment team until the final stages – but it’s the early stages where individual and personal engagement can make the difference. Offering the chance for applicants to communicate with members of the team, whether by telephone, email, text or via social media, helps to build engagement with the employer brand.

Being there to answer any candidate questions or queries makes the recruitment process more ‘human’.

Candidates begin their journey by completing a swift, engaging, mobile- enabled application form – the length of which has been reduced, with all unnecessary fields removed to make it as easy as possible for candidates to apply.

We’re strong believers that information typically asked for in application forms can be picked up and asked about later in the process – why risk losing high- quality applicants by putting them off at the first hurdle? If diversity is on your agenda – not actually knowing any of the personal details of the candidates, aside from their contact information (for obvious reasons), can do your diversity figures a world of good. Collectively, ABF and Cohesion broke the application form down into its minutia, and agreed on the information that was actually needed to get the candidate through the initial stage of the process.

The candidate journey, at every stage, is supplemented by regular communication between the candidate and the recruitment team. This means that candidates are never kept in the dark about their application, and know where they are in the process at all times. We want them to do well, and will go out of our way to support them at every stage. There are so many different ways to communicate with candidates – consider how you can be creative with this.

For example, partway through the recruitment process a Twitter Q&A was held by the recruitment team, and some of the current graduates at ABF. This allowed candidates to ask questions of those who have experienced the recruitment process and can relate easily. For us, this received an enormous amount of engagement – could it work for you, too?

Guidance videos on how to excel at assessment centres were embedded in emails, and the recruitment team proactively contacted candidates who had started but not completed a stage of the process. All of the above helps to make the journey from application to offer as stress-free for the candidate as possible. They receive the support they need to enable them to give the best account of who they are.

The ABF assessment centre, designed specifically for each scheme, is the final stage of the process. Candidates take part in a number of exercises with assessors from their chosen function, as well as members of the HR team.

The exercises are functionally-relevant, and candidates report an appreciation for the insight into the reality of working in specific roles. The assessment centre also reinforces the ABF culture of focusing strongly on people and ensuring there’s a ‘human touch’ throughout. In order to help the candidates to relax and perform at their best, we run a meal and overnight stay beforehand with the assessors and recruitment team.

Of course – preparation is the recruitment teams’ buzzword in the run-up to the assessment centre. Every candidate receives a personal preparation call, to brief them on what to prepare for the assessment centre, as well as what they should expect on the day.

To contribute further towards the positive candidate experience, in an attempt to reduce anxiety when waiting for decisions post-assessment centre, we focus on giving each candidate their outcome and full feedback within 24 hours of the assessment centre.

After every stage of the process, regardless of whether or not the candidate is successful – they are given extensive feedback on their performance. This constructive feedback helps them to do better in the next application process that they find themselves in – whether that’s with ABF, or not.

Candidates leave our process, regardless of the outcome, with more knowledge about how to do better next time – their feedback tells us they appreciate this hugely.


Overall time to offer plays a massive part in how engaged candidates are during the recruitment process. With the pull of the various brand in the ABF family, we receive in excess of 100 applicants per vacancy on average and, therefore, work hard to bring candidates through the process as efficiently as possible.

Of course, we always look to shorten the time candidates are in our pipeline, and good forward-planning and diary management allows us to do this. We also actively challenge each stage of our process to make sure we’re as open and accessible as possible for all candidates who want to apply.

Right from the beginning of the process, candidates know that we are open to engaging with them to discover their individual strengths and behaviours – not focusing on their academic results alone. In partnership with Cohesion, ABF are able to build relationships with candidates right from the start – we believe this helps us to keep them more engaged throughout.

Of course – we’re not immune to having our graduate offers reneged on. However, we can be confident that this isn’t due to a lack of candidate engagement throughout the recruitment process.

The ABF recruitment process revolves entirely around people, the ABF culture, and the ‘human touch’. Candidates will likely apply for the role because they’re attracted to our brands, but we believe that they choose to accept our offer because of the people they have met, and the inclusive, warm culture that permeates throughout the entirety of the recruitment  process.

For ABF, engaged candidates translate directly into engaged employees – this is why it’s paramount that we get our recruitment process right.

This article was published by the AGR in their Graduate Recruiter Magazine

If you’d like to know more about how to engage employees, click here to get in touch with us to see how we can help you or call us on 0121 713 8320 


The Apprenticeship Levy is fast approaching – before we even know it, it’ll be well under way. At the moment, there’s a lot of speculation around whether or not it’s going to work.

Our answer to that – it’ll work for you, if you make it so.

According to the 2016 AGR Annual Survey, Apprenticeship vacancies were up by 13%, already showing that more is being done to increase the recruitment of Apprentices, as opposed to the recruitment of Graduates (who saw a decrease in vacancies of 8%).

With that being said – are you ready for the Apprenticeship Levy?

View our Apprenticeship Levy Users’ Guide, here.

Understand how the Apprenticeship Levy works

First things first – you need to know whether or not you’re paying the Levy.

In its simplest form – if you have an annual pay bill in excess of £3 million, you will contribute towards the Apprenticeship Levy. If your annual pay bill is £3 million or below – you won’t. As far as statistics are concerned – around 2% of UK businesses will be contributing towards the Levy.

So, the other 98% need to know how to maximise their benefit from it.

One of the most important details to be aware of is, even if you aren’t contributing towards the Levy – you can still benefit.

For those of you who are contributing – HMRC will take your contribution on a PAYE basis. This will be paid into a Digital Apprenticeship Service online account that only you can use. Also, on top of the contribution that they take from you – they give you an additional 10%. This money then has to be spent within 24 months of it landing in your account.

For those of you who aren’t contributing – you do still have access to Government funding. You will only have to contribute 10% of the costs of training, with the Government paying the remaining 90%.

What can I spend my Levy on?

Of course – there is no obligation to spend anything through the Levy. However, you stand to lose more if you contribute towards the Levy and don’t spend it, because the vouchers expire.

The Levy only covers the cost of training your Apprentice – the costs associated with salaries, recruitment and onboarding are to lie solely with you. Also, you’re only able to use recognised and registered Apprenticeship Training Providers.

This is the case regardless of whether or not you contribute towards the Levy.

It’s a common misconception that the Apprenticeship Levy can only be spent on what is typically seen as an Apprentice. This isn’t the case at all.

Existing Staff

Despite not being able to spend your Levy fund on recruitment or apprentice salaries – you are able to offer apprenticeships to your existing staff.

Your existing staff will be eligible as long as the apprenticeship is relevant to their role, and the most appropriate route for progression and development in their career.

However, an apprenticeship is subject to a minimum length of 12 months. So, if a member of your existing staff is on a contract of employment, they’re still eligible providing they’ll be able to be an apprentice for a minimum of 12 months.

Graduate Apprenticeships

The current funding rules for the Levy state: as long as the apprentice does not have a qualification higher than the apprenticeship standard – they are eligible.

In this sense, you are able to offer apprenticeships to graduates. However, there is still some clarification required on the funding rules that will apply to the Levy.

For example, referring back to your ability to use the Levy fund to offer your existing staff an apprenticeship: if the graduate already holds a Level 6 Degree Apprenticeships, but a Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship is relevant to their role in terms of career progression and development – are they eligible to be made an apprentice and, subsequently, be trained through the Levy?

To view a list of all of the approved apprenticeship standards, click this link –

In conclusion – companies are able to benefit greatly from the Apprenticeship Levy. Apprenticeship recruitment is fantastic for filling skills gaps and reducing the issues associated with an ageing workforce. The trick is in planning and preparation.

If you use the Apprenticeship Levy the way it’s meant to be used – there is no end to the benefits that you can see.