How to spot hidden talent

March 30, 2001

Pat Leon visits Aberystwyth, where students turn their job and study skills into ten-minute skits.

Aberystwyth is not on the road to anywhere. It sits in the middle of Cardigan Bay looking seaward, linked to other Welsh towns by winding roads and to England by a tiny train line that trundles through the valleys. Perhaps its very isolation has created an eagerness on the part of the university to make itself more cosmopolitan and yet more Welsh.

An outpost mentality is a powerful stimulus, and the careers advisory service at Aberystwyth feels it has to work harder than most to convince employers to make the trek in their recruiting milkrounds. So it has added an enticement: an annual skills competition, for students to show off their talents on stage and in display stands at the annual careers information fair. The idea is to focus on the workplace skills that students develop in their discipline and to counter the widespread view among employers that graduates lack initiative and communication ability.

"It's a brilliant device," says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, who has twice chaired the judges' panel. "I'd like to see the idea adopted by other universities. It helps students to reflect on what they have learnt and gained in their study and to think of imaginative ways to market it for employers."

Competition organiser Lynda Rollason says: "The Aberystwyth event is unique. It teams companies and organisations with academic departments. The roll-call in the past five years includes BBC Wales, Barclays Bank, Eversheds, the Joint Services and the British Geological Survey."

Companies sponsor teams and donate prizes: £500 each for the best presentation and stand and £800 for the best overall team. Everyone wins a book token. A panel of judges is drawn from public and private-sector organisations. This year's competition, held last week, attracted entries from 14 teams representing 12 departments.

Preparation starts in November and each department appoints a staff member to organise a contest to pick a team. John Harries, teaching director at the 650-student Institute of Rural Studies, says: "We do a lot of awareness-raising with our second and third-years and encourage as many as possible to enter. We target students on the basis of their seminar presentations and exercises.

The competition has had a knock-on effect on teaching, says Harries. "We give students more opportunities to develop presentation skills. We video them and they reflect on their performance. These sorts of activities give students confidence for job interviews. We are starting to develop a more balanced profile of each student and their strengths," he says.

The computer science department, which won this year's presentation prize with a video and skit based on the film The Matrix , used to run an assessed module on presentations that fed into the competition. But Mark Ratcliffe, head of teaching, says: "Now we don't have enough room in the curriculum. We look for volunteers among second-years. This year we got three teams and held a knock-out."

Once teams are selected, the careers department steps in with courses on team building, project planning, presentation skills, stand design and PowerPoint.

Rollason says: "For team training, we split the students up and give them group tasks such as laying a rope in a perfect square while blindfolded or planning how to organise an air-drop of supplies to ten African villages."

The careers office also helps teams to select a sponsor company or organisation twin which is expected to help and perhaps top up the £200 every team gets for materials. Employees may give workshops, presentations or lectures on the skills and talent they look for when recruiting. They may also give information about their line of business for use in the presentation.

Others sponsor companies devise exercises around team building, communication, including negotiation and assertiveness, or time management. This year, British Airways invited the team from European foreign languages to its London training centre for a couple of days.

But at the end of the day, it is up to the students to dissect their discipline in English, and often Welsh as Aberystwyth is a bilingual university. Most teams turn their ten-minute presentation slot into drama, many using videos around film and television themes such as Blind Date , The Weakest Link and The Firm .

The students are busy working on their presentations up to the last minute. Nick Peridkas, who was in last year's business school team, says: "I had very little sleep in the last week before the competition. We had three meetings a week of two to four hours."

On the day, the presentations take place in the arts centre theatre in front of a shifting audience of staff and students who, along with the judges, can tour the careers fair trying out interactive quizzes and grabbing the cakes, alcohol and lollipops on offer on their way up. Prize giving rounds off the day.

Craig Owen, National Union of Students president for Wales and a former Aberystwyth student, says things have changed. "Five years ago, geography was the only group using PowerPoint, now the new thing is cocktails."

"There is a real buzz," says Gilleard. "I think Aberystwyth has hit on a magic formula. They should bottle it and sell it."

The Matrix versus gingerbread

Teaching director Mark Ratcliffe says that the computing department sees Aberystwyth's annual skills competition as a logistical challenge.

Lectures are cancelled when the presentation is on. "Just getting students and staff up to the arts centre where they can see the stands and presentations is one hurdle," according to Ratcliffe. "We want a good turnout. My hope is that the surge of people coming in says a lot to the judges."

"The relationship with industry collaborators is the best spin-off, it's invaluable," says Ratcliffe.

The feedback from companies is taken into account in the curriculum. "Last year, every one who worked on the stand was approached and offered a job - that says something."

Graham Laker, lecturer in theatre, has a different approach. He lets the students do their own thing. "It tests their initiative," he says. Students in the department of theatre, film and television studies, whose team won the best stand prize for its gingerbread house theme, already have skills. "They are used to presenting themselves or working on a collective group product, with video, for example. They're not terribly shy and tend to do rather well."

Law was best overall winner for stand and presentation.

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