By Jennifer Salopek
Mar. 21, 2011
Although Coca-Cola products are staples on college campuses nationwide, recruiters for a major division of the world’s largest soft-drink maker were marked as absent.
But in 2009, Coca-Cola Refreshments—the company’s sales and supply operation—launched the University Talent Program. Its creation was spurred by compelling business needs.
Although Coca-Cola is one of the world’s most-recognized brands, supply-chain jobs aren’t high-profile, hotly sought positions. The company faced a common problem: a shortage of talent.
“We wanted to infuse talent into the organization that would add value to the business through participation in targeted leadership and internship programs,” says LaTashia White, director of talent acquisition for Coca-Cola Refreshments, which employs 75,000 people in North America.
To make Coca-Cola Refreshments opportunities especially attractive, White put together a program structure that would ensure participant success. Its crucial elements are real-world responsibility, executive exposure and support and built-in professional development.
White sought to leverage the Coke brand not only to interest more candidates but to also help expand the division’s diverse workforce.
“We developed a major initiative to attract more women and people of color, so we turned to campuses to establish a diverse pipeline,” she says. College recruiting seemed to provide access to large numbers of candidates cost effectively, so the company launched University Talent Program to plumb a previously untapped resource.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that, in 2009, women accounted for 48.45 percent of the total workforce and constituted 54 percent of professional workers. Minorities, meanwhile, comprise 34 percent of the total workforce but only 24.5 percent of professionals.
“We should always be looking for top talent wherever we find it, and looking to increase representation wherever we identify gaps,” says Linda Stokes, president and CEO of PRISM International, a consulting group based in Sanford, Florida. “Inclusive, respectful workplaces lead to increased employee engagement, which has been shown to positively affect business results.”
Hired during the spring of their senior year, Coca-Cola Refreshments’ new hires, who are known as “leadership associates,” can specialize in human resources, business, sales, supply chain, or finance. Once hired, they enter a 24 to 36-month, full-time program, rotating to new assignments within their specialty every six to 12 months.
Participants are supported by rotational managers, sponsors and coaching peers. Brian Weston graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in May 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and entered the company as part of the finance team. He recently completed his first rotation in forecasting.
“It was an excellent place to start, at the center of finance, sales and the supply chain. It gave me a sense of who the players are,” he says. Weston is now beginning a rotation in procurement.
“Learning activities, such as capstone projects at the end of rotations, enable our participants to get leaders’ ears,” White says.
The new hires must meet performance expectations, complete a functional learning curriculum that includes on-the-job training and an annual leadership conference and are evaluated like other employees. Those who excel are eligible to take on leadership roles.
White immediately pushes for the retention of the young workers. She partnered with learning and development professionals to create an onboarding toolkit that would help develop an affinity for the organization and set participants up for success. Each entering class participates in a weeklong series of learning and social activities.
Each year, the division accepts 60 full-time associates and 80 interns. In the first year of the program, 32 percent of full-time recruits were people of color; 44 percent were women. In the second year, 45 percent were people of color while 54 percent were women. White recruits at 29 colleges and universities nationwide, selecting historically black colleges and others based on their U.S. News and World Report rankings in such relevant programs as industrial engineering.
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