Ministers must tell big companies to offer high-quality student work experience

It is incumbent on the government to help build better ties between companies such as Google and the university sector, says Alex Acland

January 30, 2018
Apprentice work
Source: Getty

A rethink is needed in how university students are prepared to enter the workplace. While many find employment, the process of embarking on a career after graduation is becoming ever more haphazard. As graduate numbers swell, competition for good opportunities is becoming more intense. At the same time, it’s increasingly unclear what and where the best opportunities might be.

The world of work is changing at such a rapid pace that even those who are already in it frequently struggle to imagine how roles, companies and industries could change in five, let alone 10, years. Digital disruption is impacting every industry and corner of the workplace, often with largely unforeseen consequences. This is creating many new roles, as well as undermining older, more traditional, ones but if it is hard for those who are already in work to keep up, it’s more challenging still for university careers services. 

Aside from a few professions – such as medicine, law or teaching – the challenge for careers departments increasingly is less to advise on careers as they have been or are today, but to better understand how roles and opportunities are evolving and linking this insight with students’ ambitions and skill sets. This matters to avoid underselling new opportunities and putting off potentially strong recruits. 

A great example of this is in the technology sector. Big tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Airbnb are thought of as soaking up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students – but they are increasingly interested in individuals with backgrounds in the creative arts and humanities, who can help address growing concern about how the companies’ technology is applied. 

Consider the battle that both Facebook and Google are waging against fake accounts and alternative news, both of which threaten their credibility. Those in more senior roles in big technology companies increasingly face such ethical challenges, which can perhaps be solved in a more balanced and efficient manner with a social sciences or arts perspective operating alongside technological understanding. Also, in companies that apply digital and immersive technologies to broader industries, such as medicine, aviation and consumer retail, today’s business leaders are looking for a new generation with skills ranging well beyond the technical. They need young people who are persuasive, problem-solvers and highly creative, to help develop and sell new applications. 

Understanding this shift away from traditional pathways, and embedding it into the advice and support that students receive at university, is critical. Sadly, there is more work to be done. Many young people studying in the arts still assume that the tech sector isn’t for them, and it’s hard for those working in education to anticipate the changes of a fast-moving working world. So, since boosting student employability is a holy grail, for government and universities alike, what can be done? 

Greater partnerships with employers has to be part of the answer; above all, to create many more meaningful opportunities for undergraduates to experience first-hand the world of work before they move into it themselves. 

For this reason, we have used our connections with universities and chief executives across the private and public sectors to launch “CEO for a Day”. Participating students in the UK this year have told us that they found the experience to be an incredibly useful eye-opener into how organisations work, what leaders do, and what new roles and opportunities are now on offer. 

With the best will in the world, however, initiatives such as this can never be enough on their own. We believe that there is a strong case for the government to incentivise large organisations to offer high-quality work experience for undergraduates, therefore increasing the availability of such opportunities  – perhaps via schemes similar to those promoting apprenticeships. 

Meantime, the link between quality work experience and more informed career choices needs to be better analysed and measured. We recently worked with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) to look at current statistics on work experience and were disappointed to find that very little useful measurement around this currently exists from a university perspective. Alongside incentivising employers, the government would do well to consider this. Information is needed that aligns data on work experience to the current world of work, which can help design and evaluate initiatives to increase student employability. 

Our perspective is simple. The workplace is a rapidly changing environment, which young graduates need every possible opportunity to be prepared for. By making well-informed decisions in their twenties, their future career progress is accelerated. As their training ground for the future, universities need to make the case, but the challenge is too great for them to resolve this alone. They need to be supported by those who ultimately benefit from more experienced and engaged graduates, future employers.  

Alex Acland is head of the Education Practice at headhunters Odgers Berndtson.

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