Why Melanie Parker from Leeds-based Graft is approaching graduate recruitment differently

Melanie Parker has spent the majority of her working career in recruitment. She has seen first-hand the ability of graduates and is looking to connect them to employers, writes Ismail Mulla.

Melanie Parker, founder of Graft in Leeds. Picture: Simon Hulme
Melanie Parker, founder of Graft in Leeds. Picture: Simon Hulme

Over the past decade Melanie Parker has carved a reputation in graduate recruitment for herself, placing young talent in fast-growing dynamic industries.

When other people go to a bar or restaurant they’ll be there to have a good time. The people serving them are usually an irrelevance but Ms Parker is wired differently.

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The recruiter will often ask young people working in bars and restaurants whether they are happy in their current jobs.

What she often sees is that a lot of them are talented graduates that are not being given a chance to utilise skills that are desperately needed in industry.

Ms Parker started her career in recruitment in 1999. It was the same year that she moved to Leeds and fell in love with the city.

However, after she had her first daughter Ms Parker was not offered flexible working so instead she had her first go at setting up her own company.

She said: “I went to Leeds Beckett where they had an entrepreneurial bootcamp which they ran.

“I spent a week working with academics and staff from the university. I did my whole proof of concept with them and I was so impressed with the people that I met when I was doing that.

“I thought from then I’d love to work for a university. Luckily there was a role that was advertised, I applied for it and was successful.”

She took on the role of business development manager at the university in 2008 and set about connecting the university’s graduates with industry.

Ms Parker said: “It was fantastic working with students. Students are the future of any industry.

“Students keep you young yourself. They’re full of vision and ideas. Sometimes they don’t know what they want to do and they need a lot of help, they need a lot of coaching and mentoring.

“They’re not always clear about what their final destination is going to be but it’s fun working with them, telling them about industry and different career choices and opportunities.”

It perhaps explains Ms Parker’s response when she is asked about perceptions of Millennials, which she dismisses immediately out of hand as “claptrap”.

She said: “It’s a really unhelpful narrative because it doesn’t achieve anything. There’s good and bad everywhere.

“There are some exceptionally talented graduates out there who go over and above. For example, if they have not done a technology degree, they’ll often be teaching themselves coding and development.

“They’re really driven. They’re what I call enhanced learners. They’ve already proven that they can learn and they can learn high level things. There’s just so much talent out there.”

Ms Parker took voluntary redundancy from Leeds Beckett so that she could scratch that itch of wanting to run her own business.

In 2018, she set up her own recruitment agency called Graft. Graft stands for graduate recruitment and future talent.

“We specialise in the future talent pipeline,” Ms Parker says. “But because we’ve got 18 months under our belt now and we’ve had good successes, clients are asking us now to find people with a little more experience.

“We do the full gamut but fundamentally Graft is a graduate business.”

By its very nature Graft finds itself at the apex of recruitment for the dynamic tech sector in the region.

Leeds-based Graft works with software companies such as Hark, The Data Shed and Panintelligence to name but a few. Ms Parker isn’t just hiring for these companies but helping many of them build out teams.

She said: “We’re on multiple hires. We’re really getting into what makes teams work and what different skills you need.”

The skills gap has long been an issue for the tech sector but things are changing with firms more open to recruiting people from non-traditional backgrounds such as coding bootcamps.

“People are just a lot more open to transferable skills from different disciplines,” Ms Parker says. “They are welcoming young talent into their organisations and either have their own internal training programmes or boot camps.”

There is still a tug of war between universities and the tech industry, Ms Parker concedes.

She added: “The pace of innovation is so fast that the universities can’t keep up because the tech stacks are diversifying. There’s always something new.”

However, businesses should focus on what she calls “graduate attributes”.

Ms Parker said: “What we put out of our universities is well rounded graduates. I will always defend universities because I spent ten years working in one but I do get the frustration of companies. They work in their own way.

“What we mustn’t overlook is some of the other skills that graduates have, which do veer more on the soft side but for today’s businesses are really critical.”

Those traits include resilience, adaptability and curiosity. She also makes the argument that a lot of graduates have a passion for learning.

Ms Parker added: “You’ve just dedicated three or four years of your life studying something that you’re really passionate about. It’s that passion that is needed in business.

“I believe that most things can be taught. To recruit for today’s markets you don’t want to be focusing just on a skills checklist.”

Graft will be recruiting for itself soon. Ms Parker hopes to add a third person to the team.

In addition to running Graft, Ms Parker is also an industry partner in the TechUp project. TechUp is designed to encourage more women to consider roles in the technology sector.

She is also on the steering group for the Leeds Digital Festival. While Ms Parker is a proud Mackem, she is Sunderland born and bred, her love for Leeds is undeniable.

She said: “If Graft was just a transactional business I would never have set it up.

“It’s roots are in the fact that I want this region to do incredibly well and I want our young talent to have exceptional careers without feeling that they have to leave the region to do it.

“It happens to be a recruitment business but my heart is in people, always has been and always will be. Sounds a bit twee, but I mean it.”

It’s not twee. It’s just a matter of fact, as anyone who has come across Melanie Parker will attest.

Curriculum vitae

Title: Founder and director of Graft

Date of birth: 8.12.72

Lives: Rawdon, Leeds

Favourite holiday destination: Sardinia

Last book read: Michelle Obama

Favourite film: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation/Elf

Favourite song: You Know How to Love Me by Phyllis Hyman and Fool’s Paradise by Meli’sa Morgan

Car driven: Renault Kadjar

Most proud of: My daughter she is the most amazing young woman and setting up Graft was scary to take the leap but really proud that I did.