Four practical tips for bringing students and businesses together

New approaches to student and employer “matchmaking” can help address graduate underemployment – and bring enjoyment for both sides, says Adele Browne

Adele Browne's avatar
De Montfort University
11 Nov 2021
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New approaches to bringing students and businesses together can help address employability issues after university

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To the average undergraduate student, the world of business is opaque: corporate language is strange; the workings of commerce are unknown; and business branding can have an alienating effect.

Likewise, on the employer side, there’s a certain fogginess around the utility of graduates, especially among smaller organisations: What can graduates do? What do they know, and do they know how to work? What are their expectations and, if we recruit them, will they stay?

We know there are more than a few graduates who aren’t in the jobs they aspire to and aren’t experiencing fulfilment, potentially affecting their own well-being as much as that of the economy.

A practical way to help graduates into better situations can be to get less bogged down with the oft-cited “gaps” in their skills and experience and focus instead on matchmaking. By introducing students and businesses to each other in new ways, it’s possible to clear some of the fog on both sides and ultimately generate new job openings. The principle for success is to bring both parties into the same space on a mutual footing – and for the university to keep out of the way.

Reveal businesses as people
Invite working alumni who are a few years out from university and happy to be open with students about their experience. Organise social events that help conversations happen, such as sit-down lunches. Avoid hosting the table – this will enable a freer conversation to happen. Let the students ask questions and find out what the businesses do, what goes on at work and how it feels. Our experiences have shown that these conversations – very different from presentations and careers fairs – help students see opportunities beyond big employer names, realise there is a vast ecosystem of supply chains and increase their attraction to staying local.

Prepare students first
Get students in the right headspace ahead of planned interactions with businesses. Schedule ample preparation time to ensure students understand the point, know who’s attending and are ready to engage in conversations with maturity. This preparation can involve guided reflection activities in workshops and peer-to-peer practice. Assist students with identifying what they don’t know, what they want to know and how they’re going to manage themselves in the room. Oblige a professional attitude, from dress to punctuality, and make this a hallmark.

Facilitate, don’t intermediate
Take students along to local business network meetings, discussions and events. We’ve found there’s more to be gained this way than the university trying to increase graduate recruitment by working with businesses on the one hand and students on the other. A student is a more interesting person to answer the question: “How can we get better applications for our vacancies?” than the university expert in the room. At events, once we’ve pointed out that there are students present, we’ve seen a step change in the atmosphere and depth of conversation.

Entertain businesses and students side by side
Create situations that generate the type of audience buzz that follows a great keynote or brilliant conference session. Make use of occasions such as TEDx events, or deliberately organise relevant training events, where you can invite mixed groups of business and student participants. Whether it’s digital marketing or unconscious bias in recruitment, there are many instances where businesses and students can learn about the same thing together. By creating mixed audiences and encouraging peer-to-peer discussion, as at any normal conference event, students and businesses have a chance to meet and for lightbulb moments to happen.

Our experiments fostering direct interactions between businesses and students have led to outcomes that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The students have been able to make more sense of real life behind the daunting frontage of “graduate jobs” and have increased their confidence that this is a world they can enter.

Businesses have gained insight into what graduates want from work − and that this isn’t necessarily the highest pay or costly training programme. They have also spotted, there and then, individuals they want in their business without worrying about their skill set on paper and have gone on to recruit them.

Failure to connect seems at least partly the cause of graduate underemployment and the struggles of business to find talent. New approaches to bringing students and employers directly together, as part of the university experience, can help address these problems and bring enjoyment for both sides.

Adele Browne is head of graduate success at De Montfort University, Leicester. She has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Support for Students category at the THE Awards 2021.

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