Business engagement is key to graduate employability

Giving students the opportunity to interact directly with business leaders can be life-changing, says Peter Viqueira

November 18, 2018

Competition for students is intensifying. A shrinking demographic, the ongoing debate around tuition fees, uncertainty relating to Brexit and the rise of alternative providers are piling pressure on long-standing models of student recruitment. Traditionally popular courses are not guaranteed to be filled, even after a challenging clearing process, and the impact on financial sustainability (and indeed viability) is increasingly pronounced.

In response, vice-chancellors are continuing to focus a significant amount of time and attention on the employability agenda. Students want value for money, and being able to secure a good job after graduation is now of paramount importance when choosing where to study.

However, information around the value of commercial work experience, and the extent to which it benefits students entering the workplace, can be patchy and incomplete. Official statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Authority record employment linked to university courses – but not in totality, and insight into how students transition into full-time work and the impact of university-business relationships on this remains varied and ad hoc.

Our own experiences, professional and personal, suggest that high-level placements and interaction with businesses and external organisations really do help students find gainful employment – and particularly those less well-placed to arrange such experience themselves.

This awareness, and a desire to strengthen the link between employers and academia (something students tell us is often missing from their university experience), was originally one of the reasons Odgers Berndtson, a global executive search firm where I am a higher education partner, launched CEO for a Day. We wanted to use our relationships across education and the public and private sectors to create personal connections between today’s business leaders and the next generation – giving them a chance to see for themselves what it really takes to lead.

Some of the feedback we’ve received since the programme began five years ago absolutely endorses our hope that, for many students, the opportunity to spend a day with a chief executive can be life-changing. 

For example, Lakechia Jeanne, who was studying biomedical science at Hull University when she won a place on the first UK CEOx1Day in 2016, told us: “It was an incredible experience. I was paired with Ian Filby, CEO of DFS, and our matching was perfect as he had studied chemistry at university. I was really able to understand how he used science to create a unique career path and grow in his field.”

Ms Jeanne has recently started working in government policy. She has also founded an Initiative called GirlsInScience.co.uk, which works to connect scientists with schools to change perceptions of science careers, particularly among young women and girls.

It is still early days for tracking the full impact on their careers, but there are many stories of participants recognising opportunities that they hadn’t previously identified or had suggested to them by their institutions, similar to Ms Jeanne’s.

Twenty leaders from organisations including Visa, The Royal Mint, Sainsbury’s, Welsh Rugby and the Department for Transport will be taking part in this year’s programme.

And each year, one vice-chancellor also participates. Last year Edward Peck of Nottingham Trent University was our inaugural higher education “CEO” and this year Mary Stuart, vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, will support the scheme. 

CEOs tell us that they enjoy an unusual opportunity to engage directly with a young person who is interested in but not otherwise connected to them or their company.

We’re now running CEO for a Day in 13 countries across our global network, including Canada, Singapore, Spain, Brazil and South Africa. Local challenges differ but experiences are often similar – with most participants finding that it’s less about technical skill and more about resilience, tenacity and being good with people. 

This is just one initiative and the challenges are great as the workplace transforms. However, our experience with CEO for a Day points to real benefits from a stronger connection between employers and universities in building employability for students. Certainly the need for deep and meaningful engagement has never been so great – and the costs of failing never as high.

Peter Viqueira is a higher education partner at Odgers Berndtson.

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