Employability is hugely important in the current climate of higher education, and rightly so. Given the increase in fees and student debt, graduates need to feel confident of finding a good job at the end of their course – and work related learning (WRL) is a great way to enhance employability.
While all HEIs will offer some form of WRL, (and it’s important to note that there is a wide variety of such offerings), in this blog I’m talking specifically about work placements.
As well as allowing students to apply subject knowledge and technical skills in a professional environment, placements also provide a helpful insight into organisational discourse, culture, professional socialisation, applied skills and working relationships. And, perhaps more importantly, placements are incredibly valuable for increasing self-confidence and encouraging reflective practice – while providing students with those “missing skills” that employers seek in graduates. Making connections with potential employers is also invaluable for students searching for a specific job after graduation.
In addition to all these benefits, I believe that handling the increased responsibility that comes with a placement - such as working in a team, delivering a product or service, handling critical deadlines – truly helps to prepare students for the challenges of working life after their studies.
This focus on enhancing student employability through placements is not simply about getting students ready for their first job – it’s about preparing them for their future careers and giving them the life skills to handle whatever route they may take.
Those of us who work within higher education must prepare and support students to develop the skills and behaviours they need in order to succeed throughout their careers. And while placements are not a guarantee of success, they can certainly accelerate a graduate’s career trajectory.
Of course, placements are not some magical panacea – they come in many shapes and sizes, often with their own advantages and disadvantages. While a sandwich year can create a good link to industry, it may be more suited to specific industries where curriculums can match more easily. Having to commit to an extra year may also not be the best fit for all students, since there may be those with commitments or current employment who do not wish to push graduation back by a year.
Shorter placements can work well when integrated into the curriculum – in particular if research or internships are assessed as part of the placement.
There is an argument to consider that placements do not always encourage more integrated approaches to WRL, therefore it’s also important to consider the many and varied approaches for engaging with industry both on and off campus.
So, while I believe that placements are important, it’s also clear that they need to be thought through carefully. Areas to consider include: supporting students, managing placement relations, assessing and developing students, and ensuring critical reflective practice once they return to campus. Most importantly, placements should not be seen as the sole focus for enhancing employability. A wide variety of methods are needed to truly embed and address employability in order to enhance graduate success.
Although establishing placements may seem daunting, the benefits they provide for equipping students with the skills to step out confidently into a demanding job market are certainly invaluable.
If you want to find out more, get in touch with me on Twitter!
We will be discussing Work Placement and Work Related Learning at our next Twitter Chat at 20:00 (BST), 27 September 2018. Follow the conversation: #HEAchat
As part of a series of three focus pieces on placements read about how Ulster University have approached placement provision here.