Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Pick up the pieces

One part of my job that I don't enjoy is facing students who have had their placement dream ended, usually by a short automated email thanking them for their interest in the role but on this occasion their application has been unsuccessful. I fully understand why employers who receive thousands of applications are unable to provide more detailed feedback at the early stages of the recruitment process, but for the student who has probably spent a number of hours drafting their application, it is a horribly impersonal way to be let down.

How students react to these setbacks is very important. For some, this initial rejection is enough to put them off looking for work experience. After getting a first taste of failure, the desire to 'focus on my studies' and protect themselves from further disappointment can provide short term comfort. They will of course only be delaying the process as graduate recruitment follows similar lines, only with greater competition for places for students without relevant work experience.

Thankfully, many of the students I work with are able to pick themselves up, dust themselves down and move onto the next application. It is part of the job of a Placement Officer to motivate students to keep going with their applications and not to give up at the first hurdle. Finding a job is not an easy business, and students need to be aware that their search for a placement will be no different.

When helping students to pick up the pieces, I like to recall those students who I've encountered whose determination to succeed was so strong, that they simply would not give up, despite numerous rejection emails. I take far greater satisfaction from seeing these students who have taken knocks along the way being rewarded for their efforts. It is an old saying, but if at first you don't succeed, try try again.

Greed is good?

Working in Placements, you look forward to your students informing you that they have secured their placement. These are the precious moments where you know that you’ve done a good job and can move onto the next student who requires your assistance. Or at least that is what you hope.

After offering congratulations and finding out all the relevant details of the placement, my next line of questioning relates to any outstanding applications that the student has made. For the vast majority, this is simply a question of tying up loose ends. If an employer contacts them for an interview, politely decline explaining that they have now secured a placement elsewhere and so are no longer available. This leaves things on good terms for the future, particularly if the student wants to pursue opportunities with that organisation later on in their career.

Where my stomach turns, is when a student says they have interviews coming up in the next couple of weeks with Company B and Company C, despite already having signed a contract with Company A. This is a scenario that is thankfully uncommon, but is one that presents a dilemma for a Placement Officer.

On the one hand, you want your students to find the right placement for them. For the next 12 months they will be undertaking the first steps in their professional career and the experience should be one in which they can flourish. However, a Placement Officer has to look at the bigger picture and recognise that their responsibilities lie not just with the students.

If an employer has a negative experience from one of my students, it does not reflect well on the University. We build relationships over the long term with placement providers to ensure that our students have a wide range of opportunities available to them. If one of our students performs a u-turn after signing a contract, it could easily sour the relationship with the employer. At a time when universities across the country are branching out into placements ahead of the 2012 tuition fees, these are employers that we can dearly afford to lose.

For the student, it is also a question of professionalism. Were the roles to be reversed and a company continued to interview until they found a better candidate, the student would rightly be outraged at having their placement taken away from them.

I am sympathetic towards students who find themselves in this situation. In a perfect world, having spent long hours making applications you obviously would want to see all of your options before making a decision. However, once you have accepted a placement offer and signed that contract it is time to step back from the recruitment process. At this early point in their career, is it worth the risk of getting blacklisted by recruiters for the sake of touting for a better offer? I would say not.

Let the good times roll

And so it begins! As if by clockwork I have received emails from several employers this morning requesting to interview students in the next couple of weeks. The adrenaline has already started to kick in as I've been arranging the interviews and trying to work out who will best fit the respective opportunities.

In many ways, helping students secure placements is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. You can spend ages trying to get the wrong pieces to fit together, but eventually you find the perfect match. It is not until you have paired up a good number of students/employers that the bigger picture starts to emerge.

After months of reading through CV's and answers to competency based questions, I'm looking forward to my appointment sheets filling up with requests for interview preparation.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Time to get busy

With January reaching its chilly conclusion, it is a time for Placement Officers to reflect on a hectic 4 or 5 months and start looking forward to getting positive results. Whereas the Autumn term is a blur of activity, spanning lectures, cv appointments and explaining for the umpteenth time what is a psychometric test, the New Year is when you start to see the green shoots of your labour.

The end of January marks the beginning of the most exciting time during the placement calendar. Many of the companies who advertise opportunities on job boards like Milkround and Rate My Placement close for applications on 31st January and then the merry-go-round of interviews and assessment centres kicks into gear. For the students who have diligently made application after application, it is time to find out how if they've passed the initial screening and move onto the next stage. For employers, this is the period for meeting fresh talent and making life-changing decisions about who will join their organisations. For a Placement Officer, it is the first real chance to assess how the current class of students are progressing in their quest to secure a sandwich placement.

So far the signs are looking promising. Lots of my students have been shortlisted for interviews and some have already secured their placements. It is a long road until the end of the summer, and it won't be until then that a full picture will emerge of how many students will spend 2012/13 in industry rather than at university.

I've decided to write this blog to reflect upon the experiences that will occur in the coming months, and comment on issues relating to student employability. I welcome feedback from all placement stakeholders, so please feel free to comment.