Undergraduate students should be given the opportunities to “experience real work during their degree” if graduate employability is to improve.
That is the view of Ruth Helyer, head of the Workforce Development Team (Research & Policy) in the department for academic enterprise at Teesside University.
Dr Helyer is part of the contributing panel for a conference that will take place next month, organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education and entitled “Supporting University-Work Transitions?
Exploring the Impact of Work Placements and Internships”. She said that the job market is so “fast-moving” that students need to be exposed to some sort of employment experience before their university years are behind them.
“I think the main way to help them is for all types of degree programmes to have some kind of placement in them,” she said. “People find all sorts of reasons not to do this, but the closest we’ve seen for getting all students employed are the likes of Aston [University] and [the University of] Surrey, where students get some kind of work experience within the degree.”
She added that even within three years of graduation, some degrees become “not topical”, with students finding that their qualification is not the direct route to the type of job they had been anticipating.
“New job roles and sectors are developing all the time, faster than you can train people to be useful in them,” Dr Helyer said. “[Employers] want people who are adaptable - because the job market can be so harsh.”
At Teesside, Dr Helyer is involved with the Graduate Internship Scheme, which places 100 recent graduates on a three-month paid internship. She acknowledged that, despite her university actively helping its graduates “who are no longer our students”, she said she felt it would be better for the help to be given “during the degree”.
Alternatives, she suggested, include “bolt-on modules” where you gain a type of “employability certificate”. But unless that is compulsory, Dr Helyer continued, “students just don’t have the time or inclination to do it, because they’re very assessment- and time-driven”.
However, she noted that for anything tangible to be put in place the sector would have to “get people meaning the same thing” when they talk about graduate employability.
“When people say ‘employability skills’ everyone means something different,” she said. “When I think of [it], I mean the things that will help you get a job and keep a job, get you promoted and allow you to change; very similar to the sorts of things you would try and do in your own professional development.
“Some people think ‘employability skills’ means writing a good CV and being good at interviews, which to me are job-seeking skills.”
Dr Helyer also suggested the sector could look overseas for answers. “Sandwich programmes, which fell out of favour here, are massive in other countries,” she said. “They are called ‘cooperative learning’ in the US and Australia, and they [the programmes] are huge.
“I know a lot of international colleagues and they think they do really well with those programmes and that they are tied to good employability outcomes.”
Ultimately, Dr Helyer knows that you “can’t please everybody” but that nevertheless, there are aspects that “could be tweaked to make it slicker”.
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