Agony aunt

October 29, 1999

Q. I have been asked to set up a work experience programme for a group of students, but am getting a poor response from local firms. Any advice please?

Oliver Fry Research officer. The National Centre for Work Experience.

Employers are often reluctant to take on students because they are worried about the time and costs. Placement organisers must, therefore, stress that, although students will have learning objectives and employers will need to assess them, undergraduate work experience is a very different proposition from the pre-GCSE variety.

Students are capable of adding value immediately, for example, through taking on complex IT or marketing projects. This can free full-time staff to concentrate on development work. Successful placement organisers understand that their employer contacts are focused on improving business performance. You must exploit this.

When trying to get employers to take students, a scatter-gun approach rarely works. It is wise to target established business forums through which you will reach larger numbers of potential host companies. The Shell STEP programme has set the standard in this field. Fiona Cullen of the programme suggests contacting local chambers of commerce, business links, development agencies and sector-based employer organisations.

Speak to existing local forums such as business breakfasts. Present case studies of successful placements from your institution, showing how host companies have achieved business objectives because of the work of enterprising students. Employers are rarely convinced unless they see a direct benefit to them. Attempt to get the local and specialist press interested in successful case studies.

Students or academic staff may have personal contacts that can be usefully exploited. If they are not in a position to employ a student, they will know who is. The more senior the contact, the better. If possible arrange face-to face meetings rather than relying on speculative letters - a high level of personal contact also serves to cement relationships with host companies and can result in staff and technology exchanges. Identify and use your alumni as they may be sympathetic.

It also pays to consult with your institution's careers service or job shop.

The staff there may have contacts with employers. Other academic departments may have established succesful practice - it is surprising how little communication there can be between departments.

Work experience practitioners are increasingly using the internet. Students submit short skills summaries that are matched to skills requirements submitted by local companies. National sites of interest include: Employers are often unaware that by hosting work experience students they can tap into affordable high-level skills, access the latest research and recruit more effectively. A key aim of the National Centre for Work Experience is to point out that firms could increase productivity. We are working with government, employers and academics to get this message across. The centre is hosting a national conference on November 22 to draw together networks and disseminate good practice. Copies of student and company guides to work experience and an interactive Skills Tracker Disk are also available. Contact for details.

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Write to Alison Utley The THES Admiral House 66-68 East Smithfield London E1W 1BX Fax 0113 2502156 Email alison.utley@

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