How can students turn pulling pints into key skills? Tony Tysome looks at the latest approach to work experience.
Students, university careers officers and employers are being encouraged to rethink their definition of work experience as part of the latest effort to produce more employable graduates.
Part-time and vacation work, such as serving up hamburgers in a fast-food restaurant or pulling pints behind the bar, needs to be redefined in terms of the skills it can help develop - like dealing with awkward customers, working under pressure, numeracy, and awareness of health and safety issues, careers experts believe.
This new outlook has become a cornerstone of Britain's "skills revolution" promised for so long by this and previous governments and which now appears to be taking shape.
Late last year ministers launched a series of initiatives not only designed to bring universities and industry closer and enhance the "employability" of graduates, but also apparently conceived as part of a coherent master plan to raise skill levels in the workforce.
In higher education, most of the effort is focusing on the perennial problem of preparing students for the world of work. Taking their cue from Lord Dearing's higher education inquiry report, ministers have put together a package of measures they hope will increase opportunities for "quality" work experience.
In June last year, further and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone announced that her department was awarding a Pounds 188,000 contract to the Council for Industry and Higher Education to set up a National Centre for Work Experience.
The NCWE will be dedicated to promoting, supporting and developing work experience for students, she said. At the Confederation of British Industry's annual conference in November, education secretary David Blunkett surprised captains of industry by announcing further measures to boost work-related skills. These included the development, in collaboration with universities, of vocationally-orientated modules in non-vocational degree courses, and a new fund to improve the application of academic knowledge to the needs of employers.
More details emerged in last month's competitiveness white paper, which revealed the government planned to invest Pounds 50 million over the next three years in the new Higher Education Reach Out fund (Hero), backed by the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Trade and Industry, to help higher education respond better to business needs.
From next year, the fund will support projects that increase the range of work experience opportunities for students.
The CBI, following the usual round of moans from employers about higher education at its annual conference, has responded positively. This is because many graduates are still not equipped with the kind of personal and work-related skills employers require, according to Margaret Murray, head of the CBI's learning and skills group.
She predicts the introduction of fees may put both students and institutions under more pressure to take all work experience seriously.
"Students need to take more responsibility for their readiness for work, but they may also expect to get more support in this from institutions as they start to pay fees," she said.
The NCWE will encourage institutions to make it easier for students to find useful work experience and get the most out of it. The centre wants students to take responsibility for finding the work.
A survey commissioned by the CIHE and carried out by the Open University found that while many students clearly benefited from support in securing a suitable work placement, less attention was paid to helping them learn from the experience they had gained.
There is a growing feeling among careers advisers that this is a key issue. If students are properly prepared to identify what skills they are gaining through work experience, then almost any work experience they get becomes valuable and useful.
Karen Powell-Williams, managing director of the NCWE, said: "The students need to know what it is they can get out of it and to be able to learn and show to employers from that what skills they have to offer."
Carl Gilliard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters and chairman of the NCWE steering group, says the same principle applies even to apparently menial jobs, such as stacking shelves in a supermarket or working part-time in a hamburger restaurant - the kind of work more students are taking on to help make ends meet.
"Most of this has tended to be regarded by students and employers as just temporary part-time work, with little value," he said. But this is one area where we can now expect to see some improvement, if students can be given the wherewithal to work out what kind of learning experience it was when they worked for that supermarket or behind that bar."
Martin Thorne, president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services and director of careers advice at Nottingham University, agrees with this view. He says Dearing presented the sector with a conundrum when he advocated more quality work experience, and presented Shell's top-notch STEP work placement programme as an example.
"The question is, how can you replicate a programme like that on the kind of scale required? The short answer is: you can't," he said. "Therefore it seems to me we have to take a much more inclusive view about what constitutes work experience, and we have to recognise the part that a wide range of experiences can play in developing skills, including voluntary and community work and part-time paid employment."
Mr Thorne likens what he sees as the necessary transfer of responsibility for finding work experience from the institution to the student to the government's move to shift responsibility for the management of pensions to the individual. He said: "There is a parallel in that it is about shifting the balance of responsibility. A more realistic role for institutions is for them to assist and stimulate students to find work experience for themselves and to get as much out of it as they can."
Some institutions are already introducing initiatives to bring about the desired culture change. About 40 students are involved in a project at the University of Central Lancashire called "Learning from Work", which started in April this year and is backed by the DFEE. The project has developed a module designed to help students assess what skills they need to achieve their career aims, and decide what they need to do in their work experience to help them acquire those skills.
David Bagley, head of the university's career development unit, said the idea for the project emerged after hearing a student's response to a question during an interview about his "only" work experience, which was in a pub. "His response was to say: 'what do you mean, I have only worked in a bar', and he went on to spell out all that working in a bar involved, such as numeracy and dealing with awkward customers. He was able to do that because he had thought very clearly about the skills he had gained doing that job," Mr Bagley said.
The project, which is aiming to involve about 1,000 students by the end of next year, provides a rigorous and accredited programme within which students can develop a similar approach. Mr Bagley added: "In general, students suffer part-time jobs as a way of making a bit of money and just drift through them. This project encourages them to take control rather more."
Another project, based at Manchester University and UMIST, is designed to help students find their own work experience opportunities. The universities' careers service has set up a "work experience bank" - a website where students can register their interest in work experience, so that vacancies can be emailed to them. The project also includes a "skills bank", in which students can electronically record their learning through work experience, and then produce from it a kind of record of achievement that can be added to job application forms or CVs.
Keith Dugdale, career services head, said: "We have found that more than 90 per cent of our students have some form of work experience. This is just a way of making the value of that experience more explicit and transparent to them and employers."
Higher education, it would appear, is taking the government's "employability" agenda seriously, and already acting upon it - a point likely to be underlined at a conference on January 18, when the DFEE and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals launch a report on Skills Development in Higher Education.
According to Richard Brown, CIHE director, this is the result of a rare phenomenon - coherent government policies. All that is needed now, as ever, is a bit more money to back it. "For the first time we have in place long-term funding that supports the notion of employability. What we need now is for that to grow to about Pounds 100 million, if it is to make a significant difference to the missions and culture within higher education," he said.
Crisp approach to job
John O'Keeffe, 20, BA Hons retailing student at Leeds Metropolitan University John O'Keeffe must be the only student in the country who has ever gained credits towards a degree by dressing up as a crisp packet. The stunt was part of a supermarket promotion he organised during a work placement with Asda's Flying Start programme.
Flying Start provides students with work experience in Asda stores near their university during term-time and near home during vacations. Students notch up points on a personal record according to the number of hours worked and tasks completed. If they accrue enough points they can do special projects, such as Mr O'Keeffe's crisps promotion.
Students on Leeds Metropolitan University's BA retailing course simultaneously gain credits towards their degree. Mr O'Keeffe says he was originally thinking of taking a traditional sandwich course until he heard of the scheme. "Usually a sandwich course means staying put in a place and a job for a year. Under this scheme I get a broader experience by working in different stores and departments," he says.
The programme is closely scrutinised by an Asda manager and a university tutor. Mr O'Keeffe said: "I have to provide evidence of how I am improving. If the tutor doesn't think it is good enough, I can't get graded on it."
Adele Perfect, 21, BA Hons business studies student at Liverpool University
For students such as Adele Perfect, the traditional placement with a blue-chip company still offers the most attractive means of gaining work experience. Ms Perfect used evidence of previous part-time work with a catering company and a supermarket to secure her one-year placement with British Steel. She was surprised how quickly she got involved in committee meetings, site visits, education liaison and personnel issues.
"What has been encouraging has been the amount of responsibility given to me in completing tasks. I feel I have gained communication and problem-solving skills, and built up my self-motivation and confidence," she said.
British Steel is boosting its recruitment effort, and sees placements as an ideal way to raise its profile and search for students with the right mix of academic and personal skills.
"More companies are returning to this idea. Some students may be worried about the setback if they don't get a placement, but it is worth going for it," Ms Perfect added.