Gaining Value from Placements

Student placements have changed, and, if they are well managed could be a valuable resource that you would be unwise to ignore.

Students today
Students are now part of a savvier, financially literate generation. They tend to be far more motivated and career-orientated than in previous years. In today's higher education and graduate recruitment market they have to be. Their thoughts are already focused on how to pay off their student loans. Many are also mature students, returning to education after a spell in employment, well aware of the demands of the real world and looking for a degree that will give tangible benefits.

This means that many prefer to follow hard-edged vocational courses. These courses, sometimes part-time or modular, are usually designed in association with business, and often include an element of compulsory work experience in the curriculum.

Placements not jobs
The short-term nature of placements is both their biggest disadvantage and greatest asset.

  • Disadvantage: by the time the student begins to find their way around the organisation, they are gone.
  • Advantage: there are jobs to be done where hiring a new member of staff would be excessive and withdrawing a permanent member of staff from their regular duties would be disruptive. Also, a project may require special skills not available in-house.

It is therefore best not to think of placements as regular jobs, but as contracts - in the same way you would treat a contract with a consultant or a builder on a specific project.

As in any contract situation, be careful to:

  • agree precisely what each party expects from the other;
  • set targets and deadlines;
  • and monitor those targets and deadlines.

Of these, the first is the most important. It is therefore vital that before you start you have a clear idea of both:

  • the task you would like done;
  • and what the student might expect in return.

What you want
In almost any business there are usually several things you would like to do, but just don't have time for. Many of these are relatively trivial, but some are projects that could have a significant effect on the long-term future of the business - if only the permanent staff were not too busy with short-term tasks.

Sometimes, these changes require professional external assistance. However, there may be other occasions when all you require is a bright person with an objective viewpoint and a bit of common sense. In such cases, a student is ideal.

For example, in 12 weeks a student might:

  • research a new market;
  • perform an 'organisation and method' survey to check the efficiency of a given system such as stock control, delivery or production;
  • codify procedures in a staff handbook;
  • review the use of IT systems in the firm;
  • build a new database;
  • create a small functional website;
  • analyse your customer records for trends, patterns and cross-relationships;
  • analyse costs;
  • and write or design new marketing material/literature.

Some of these tasks will require some previous skills, particularly with computers (web design, database creation etc), but often students can bring the latest thinking from their course.

What the students want
Theory is all very well but nothing teaches like experience. So, in addition to something good to include on their CV, the student will expect to gain knowledge and skills that will be useful in the marketplace later on.

In particular you must consider how you can give the student:

  • a general overview of your business;
  • hands-on experience with a degree of real responsibility;
  • exposure to a range of different skills and task.

Bear in mind that most people can become easily bored and quite capable of walking away if not stimulated or challenged enough. The same rule applies to students. A dull, repetitive, menial task is a waste of the student's time and your opportunity to utilise their skills and enthusiasm.

The ideal scenario
It often happens that the student and the business get on so well together that the student is offered a permanent job on graduation.

However this should not be seen as the objective on either side. While there is an advantage in recruiting with whom you have already worked, placements becoming permanent may not need to be an official part of your recruitment policy. Similarly the student should not be encouraged to think of the placement a short cut to employment with the organisation. If it happens, it happens and it is a bonus.

Further information

  • Many students write to employers direct, but you know little about them except what they tell you and the fact they have the initiative to write in the first place.
  • For a structured approach, contact our marketing team on 01273 325775. They have their own links with universities and departments and can help you find suitable students.
  • Another alternative is to try and approach your local Business Link. Most will have some sort of link with universities. Contact them on 0845 600 9006 or see www.businesslink.org
  • The majority of universities have Careers Offices or Industrial Liaison Officers. You can approach these with a proposal for a contained project that would be suitable for students to handle.
  • The STEP scheme is part of Shell's Community Investment Programme and runs throughout July and August each year. 1500 students each year placed with small businesses and community organisations. For details of the STEP scheme please call 0870 036 5450 or see www.step.org.uk
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