Students should be encouraged to participate in work experience throughout their university life. Not all students can manage an internship in the summer months. A range of opportunities is essential to ensure that exposure to the workplace is an accessible event.
Anyone in contact with the Higher Education sector will have witnessed the dramatic changes that have taken place over the last two decades. Not least of these is the graduate job market that students must navigate – not only after leaving university but whilst they are studying too. Preparations for successful employment must be made in advance. The expectation is that upon graduating, individuals will be able to hit the ground running, with a range of experiences and responsibilities, in-depth knowledge and enhanced skill set, enabling them to thrive in a competitive field. And as part of this, no one can doubt the benefit of encouraging students to engage with work experience.
Today’s savvy graduate already knows that a degree alone is unlikely to provide the requisite breadth of knowledge. Depending on their chosen field, there may be some jobs where it is simply not possible to progress without work experience – such as teaching and healthcare. But there are plenty more reasons for students to embrace the opportunities that work experience can provide. Gaining experience in the workplace, with real expectations and demands, has so many additional benefits – increased confidence, a more robust CV, increased career focus. It can often be a thought-provoking and motivating experience. And who doesn’t want to work with a more motivated, focused student body? Work experience can build soft skills which will also complement academic lifetime management, judgement, communication.
The Student Journey
From first to third year, undergraduate to postgraduate and beyond, students learn, adapt and mature. As university employees, we facilitate and encourage this development. Expectations increase, more demanding challenges are placed upon students, with more independent thought anticipated. Some students respond well to this trajectory, and some need extended support to adjust. Partaking in work experience enables them to consider their development, and future, in the context of the world of work. It can provide a crucial opportunity for reflection, allowing learners to decide upon the direction they want to take their learning in, the focus and hard work that will be required, and how they might want their futures to look.
How can we increase awareness and support decision making?
As is so often the case with careers and work-related matters, activities and awareness need to be embedded into university life – students should not have to seek out initial information. Dialogue with academic and support staff, particularly in group settings can have an impact. If there is a universal expectation that work placements are part of everyone’s higher education experience, it will inspire individuals to become involved who previously may not have engaged. How much do you know about your university’s work experience programme/s? How could this be promoted not just by careers staff, but by teaching staff too? Make it your job to know, so you can talk with confidence and signpost to the right places. What resources are available? What can a student do if their desired placement is hard to get?
Of course, work experience is an umbrella term, and it can come in many forms. Is it possible to consider a work placement module when designing and updating programmes? If you are an academic member of staff with expertise in your field, could you foster links with your institution and industry? Consider the subject-specific advice you could offer. Think about skills that are in demand. Any anecdotal information and advice you can add, that goes beyond what they can read on the internet, will be invaluable.
Knowing about local charities and organisations that accept skilled volunteers is also useful. Are there opportunities within your department? Within your institution? Students do not necessarily need to reach far – encourage resourcefulness. Work experience need not be a one-off event. What a student learns from the first placement can inform which direction they take with subsequent ones.
It’s possible that within your role at your university, you could be the person that simply sparks an idea within a student. From there, we can all work to ensure students are well informed and know who they can seek support from at all stages of the process.