Maybe next time wear your suit?

October 28, 2005

From forward planning to appropriate dress, your students will rely on you for sound advice on how to approach a work placement and avoid a faux pas on the first day. So deliver the facts without any frills, suggests Harriet Swain

Why any student would want to spend time working in an office rather than a library or a lab is a mystery. But if they want a work placement, at least it means they're not bothering you. Right? Wrong. Darren Scott, head of the University of Leeds' Work Placement Centre, says that while finding their own placement is one of the key points of the exercise for students, there is plenty universities should be doing - from offering help with writing CVs and attending interviews to job searches, networking strategies and telling them where to find suitable placements.

Sarah Churchman, director of student recruitment at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says that when recruiting for work placements she looks for students who have done their research. "Academics should encourage students to prepare as if for an exam," she says. She adds that it is also important to matchmake individuals to opportunities. "I don't think anyone should embark on a graduate work experience scheme if he or she isn't serious about it as a possible career," she says.

Amy Glover, who did three work placements at the end of her second year of studying music at Leeds and who has written a report on how to market work placements, says you need to think about your students' priorities rather than your own.

She suggests devoting time early in the student's career to looking at job opportunities. Do they want placements to boost their income or are they more interested in building up their CVs? How much time can they afford to devote away from university work?

"Academics' priorities are that you come out with a good degree at the end of the day," she says. "I know you need a good degree and a good work placement."

She suggests getting to know the relevant jobs market for your students by finding out the destination of the previous year's graduates, and then finding out what kind of skills these jobs require. She also advises being flexible. She could not take up one work experience possibility because it would have involved taking days out during term time. But she says these opportunities can be some of the best experiences of student life.

Fiona Barker, external relations manager at Manchester University's School of Informatics, says that you also have to understand the priorities of the companies offering placements and that flexibility is important in this respect too. Some may want students to work one day a week, while others will want them full time for a couple of months or more. She advises establishing whether they are just looking for help with menial work, in which case the placement is unlikely to be successful, or are offering work close to graduate level.

Once you have worked this out, you have to make sure that your students can deliver, comparing the skills involved in their university curriculum with those needed for the job.

Bill Lucas, deputy director for delivery and assessment at the Cambridge-MIT Institute, who researched the benefits of work placements in industry for science students, says his study shows that the best placements were those related directly to a student's course. Companies usually thought more deeply about such placements and gave students specific tasks. Students also seemed to benefit from working alongside someone who understood the organisation and was particularly effective in it, and from working in smaller units in which they could see how the various aspects of a company fitted together.

Liz Rhodes, director of the National Council for Work Experience, says there has to be something in it for the employer as well as the student. It is particularly important to establish what the employer needs when he or she runs a small business and has little experience of taking on students.

There should also be a clear job description. She recommends that both the employer and the university give the student an introduction to the role.

Scott says you will need to explain about the cultural differences between the worlds of commerce and higher education, while Rhodes says it is important to prepare students in practical ways, such as stressing the importance of turning up on time and obeying dress codes. "If they haven't been made aware that these are things they have to check out, then they might feel a bit lost," she warns.

Barker says it is also important to find out what kind of support companies can offer. Do they have mentors or "buddies" for young recruits? How do they manage their graduate trainees? Often this will give you a good indication of how well set up they are for those on work experience, and whether they are likely to be good long-term employment prospects once your students graduate. She says that if you show you care about what is happening in the placement and that you are prepared to help solve problems, it will give students more credibility.

"It means the company knows that the student is a good student and the university is behind what he or she is doing," she says.

Churchman recommends establishing a close relationship with particular companies that take students. Her company has a relationship with Newcastle University, which provides accountancy students to help out in its busiest season every year.

She says that once the placement is over, it is vital to help students express what they have learnt. "Even if they have worked for their local supermarket, they must have learnt something about customer service," she says. "They need to think about what they have been doing."

Further information National Council for Work Experience: www.work-experience.org

Cambridge-MIT Institute: www.cambridge-mit.org

TOP TIPS

Find out about what opportunities are out there

Think about your student's needs and the company's needs and make sure these match

Keep communication channels open with the company and the student

Check the company's health and safety and support mechanisms

Help your student to express what he or she has learnt

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