The enthusiasm of those who this year completed the NHS graduate training scheme must surely give heart to even the most unimaginative of the health service's critics. Paul Smith was caught up in the feel-good mood

Published: 31/01/2002, Volume II2, No. 5790 Page 14 15

Even if you had been a hermit living in a cave on the planet Zog since 1948, you would still have heard that the NHS is on the verge of meltdown, with only the most unbalanced sadist wanting to go within a mile of the nearest hospital.

So it should come as a surprise to those involved in the unseemly media cat-fights of recent weeks that there exists a band of men and women who want to make the health service the centre of their professional lives. Welcome to the graduates of the NHS general management training scheme.

While the latest 'development' in the Rose Addis saga was being splashed across the front pages last Friday, around 60 fresh-faced managers were at the Le Meridian Queens Hotel in Leeds receiving their certificates after two years getting to grips with arguably the toughest - as well as the biggest - business in Britain.

Perhaps as an unsubtle warning for future boardroom battles, the ceremony involved a management workshop based around Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.The aim was to offer a final lesson on the nature of ambition, loyalty, morality, motivation and using 'emotional intelligence' to achieve what you want - qualities the new graduates will need in becoming movers and shakers in senior management.

The trainees bring an encouraging breadth of background to the scheme - in addition, there is a high proportion of women, and ethnic minorities account for around 12 per cent.

Perhaps most important, this crop of future talent is not made up of blue-chip failures - management wannabes who turned to the public sector because City firms turned them down. Little-known fact of the week: among university graduates the NHS is almost cool.

Ta k e The Times' UK graduate careers survey: last year the NHS moved from seventh place to second as the employer of choice in the general management sector.

Only British Airways was more popular, and that was before the impact of 11 September had been felt.Applications for the MTS rose by 7 per cent last year - the largest increase in six years.

Given the service's current reputation as a dilapidated, underfunded and morale-free zone, the big question is, why?

Andrew Archibald, one of the class of 2002, said: 'It was not something I set out to do. I went to one of the graduate career fairs and looked at what the companies had on offer. Working for the NHS was not an ambition I had had since a child or anything like that. It was just that once I began to find out more, the more it made sense.

'I think once you look behind all the headlines a different picture emerges. I was just excited about what the NHS was offering.'

The other element which attracts the trainees is the public service ethos, according to Ruth Holdaway. A former National Union of Students vice-president at Birmingham University, she said: 'It is important to me just because of my background. I didn't have any ambitions when I finished university to go into the NHS, but I do feel that there are genuine rewards of working within the public sector that you do not get elsewhere.'

MTS marketing manager Marita Brown, who is delighted with the resurgence of the NHS's profile among top graduates, said:

'The candidates are bright, and we look for those who are motivated in what they do. I think the critical attribute is that they relish a challenge. I am sure that many can look at their contemporaries at university who went on to bluechip companies and have a Mercedes and a fat salary, but the fact is what they are doing is probably quite dull.

'You also have to take into account that if you can be a successful manager in the NHS, you can probably be a successful manager anywhere. The skills needed are very complex, basically because of the complexity of the NHS itself and the pressures involved in not making mistakes.'

The precise value placed on getting the necessary talent into top management positions can be gauged by the amount spent on putting them through the twoyear programme - an estimated£100,000 each.

But despite the enthusiasm for the scheme, there are not enough trainees coming through the system. Ms Brown explained: 'Like lots of big businesses, there is a separation between workforce planning and the graduate schemes. They have a set budget for each and the thinking in some cases is not joined up - and the same applies to the NHS.

'We could expand the programme quite easily. The trainees often go for jobs in the NHS where they and just one or two other applicants have the necessary skills. So people coming through the programme are all snapped up.'

Cynics may suggest that for all the enthusiasm for the public sector, many of the trainees will be roughed up by the day-to-day realities of being an NHS manager. But Olivia Amartey's views are based on insider experience.

Now aged 40, she worked as a radiographer at Birmingham Heartlands and Solihull trust. She crossed the 'Berlin wall', joined the MTS scheme and now works as a public involvement facilitator at George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton.

'When I first told colleagues in the [radiography] department, there was real surprise. I think I was seen as someone who was moving over to the other side or something. That is not the case. I am committed to the public service, a service free on the point of access, and if that changed then I would want to leave. The NHS is fundamentally about people - about doctors and nurses and cleaners and managers.'