Students learn a bit of 'can do'

March 31, 2000

Pipe dreams? Careers advisers have been struggling to make part-time work relevant to students' future vocations Tony Tysome What is the connection between stacking shelves in a supermarket and astronomy?

Nothing much. But just thinking about it can lead to one giant leap in a student's career prospects, according to work experience gurus.

The question is known as the "beans exercise" at the University of Central Lancashire, where careers counsellors have been struggling to reconcile students' efforts to make ends meet with a national campaign to build work experience into the degree curriculum.

Students on a new Learning from Work module are asked to consider the relevance to any undergraduate discipline of stacking cans of beans, pulling pints or serving burgers.

Delegates gathered at a work experience conference in Birmingham this week heard how the exercise was helping students realise that even the most menial of jobs could equip them with workplace skills.

Pam Houghton, leader of the project, explained: "The beans exercise helps them realise that someone somewhere in Sainsbury's may have an expertise in one of these subjects and that there is much more to an organisation than meets the eye."

The two-year project is one of eight selected and funded by the Department for Education and Employment to tackle challenges set by the Dearing report for more students to become familiar with the world of work and more employers to offer work experience. Other schemes include the creation of a national work experience bank and website and various efforts to accredit and embed work experience in the curriculum.

Lancashire students, some of whom have been missing lectures to work up to 35 hours a week, are encouraged to sign up for the module, which puts them through a rigorous process of recording what work they have done, evaluating it and discussing it with their peers and line managers.

Stephen McNair, network facilitator for the projects and head of the school of educational studies at Surrey University, told the conference: "One of the clear opportunities is to exploit paid part-time work, even though most of this is not traditional graduate work. Many students do not realise this involves real skills and unless they are explicit and recorded, they are not learned."

But Karen Powell-Williams, director of the National Centre for Work Experience, warned that progress towards the Dearing objectives was still too slow and that more government funding was needed for an awareness-raising campaign aimed mainly at employers.

Employers should be encouraged to set work projects for students to tackle specific tasks or problems, rather than just recruiting them as "an extra pair of hands", she said.

Even in supermarkets, students should "get into an area where there is real skills development". They need, in other words, a bit of "can do".

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