Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Good things come to those who wait

A few months ago I wrote an article imploring students to not give up on placements. It was mid-April, exams were coming up on the horizon and understandably focus was on revision rather than application forms. The message of that article was succinct - it's not too late to get a placement, and it is something that I've been repeating on Twitter ever since.

I can understand the mindset of a student, who after months of trying and getting nowhere is prepared to throw in the towel and turn their back on placements. But if I could bottle resilience and sell it, I'd be considerably richer than I am now. During the months of May, June and July, I've had 77 of my students secure placements. That is during months where some people will have thought it too late to get a placement and not bothered to look for one. I don't want to say I told you so but..... well, you know what comes next!

During July alone which is a month when you may expect the well to run dry, more than 30 of my students have secured placements. From interactions with colleagues in other universities, it is a similar picture. July has been a busy month with lots of successes to report. It is the healthiest I've seen the placement market since the Lehman Brothers fallout in 2008 and with what are potentially green shoots of recovery in the economy, there is reason to be optimistic that next year will be even better.

The message for students preparing to embark on their second year at university, combined with searching for a placement, is be ready to play the long game. Many of my students who have secured their placement in recent days have been going hard at it since last autumn and are finally getting the fruit of their endeavour. How we react to setbacks and disappointments is important. You can fall at the first hurdle and give up, or you can learn from the experience and clear it at the next time of asking. Good things can indeed come to those who wait.

Resilience, determination, bloody-mindness. They aren't necessarily the competencies you are asked to expand upon when applying for placements, but they are qualities that many of my students have exhibited in abundance in their search for work experience. It is great to see so many of them now being rewarded for going the distance.
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Friday, 19 July 2013

One sentence says it all

Yesterday afternoon I was paid a visit by one of my students who had just completed their placement year. He had literally come from his last morning at work, armed with the leaving presents his colleagues had clubbed together to buy him as a thank you for the last 12 months of service. I asked him how the experience had been an in one sentence summed up everything I think prospective placement students need to know about work experience.

'I learnt more in my placement year than I did in the two years of my course.'

It is the sort of headline that newspaper sub-editors or marketing bods could spend hours trying to formulate. Very simple, direct and powerful. It is a message I'll be quoting many times in the future.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A rewarding experience?

With employability high on the agenda at pretty much every university across the country, it is no surprise that there is a degree of out of the box thinking taking place. 'How can we improve our student's employability?' is the question that everybody wants to find a solution. Employers, well the AGR most publicly, make the case for work experience, talking about how competitive the graduate market is. The High Fliers report concurs pointing out 'graduates who have had no previous work experience at all are unlikely to be successful during the selection process and have little or no chance of receiving a job offer for their organisations’ graduate programmes'.

I'm not somebody who needs convincing. I work with placements day in day out and know just how much value they add to a student when leaving academia. I wouldn't write this blog or actively promote placements through #PlacementChat with Rate My Placement if I thought I was flogging a dead parrot. The vast majority of the students I have helped to secure a placement over the last few years would agree it was not only a great choice to have made, but also provided a boost to their early career prospects compared to their peers who did not take a placement year.

But what about Careers and Placement services themselves? I'm not going to pretend that everything in my domain is perfect. Personnel should always be looking to improve themselves and resources should meet the changing needs of our clients in the modern era. I'm on one side of the digital divide, I know many brilliant people who are on the other. Tweeting and blogging ultimately doesn't bring home the bacon, it is the results that count and in my business we tend to be judged on the numbers. Are more students getting placements? How many are getting into 'big' companies? etc

It was with considerable personal interest that I read Professor Zahir Irani's comments in Guardian newsletter yesterday, under the section Guardian Higher Education Network.To stave off threats from the private sector, Irani suggests 'Career centres should start thinking and acting more like recruitment companies with dedicated consultants, motivated and, indeed, rewarded for placing students and graduates into jobs.'

Reward for placing students into jobs? That is certainly an interesting proposition. I currently earn a fixed salary, without bonus or incentive. Would my mentality change if my income became partially performance-related? Rather than trying to help all students to secure placements, would I turn my focus specifically upon those who I know have a greater chance of success? Maybe I would offer less support for roles at companies where I know there is little possibility of pushing up the numbers. Why for example would I agree to sit down with a student with a poorly composed application for one of the big 4 professional service companies, when my time could be more lucratively spent with a straight As student applying to a company who genuinely wants to hire from my university? Certainly an interesting ethical dilemma. 

Putting the moral maze aside for one second, let's focus on the reality of placement and careers services. Even with the employability agenda, lots of services are under resourced. Throughout HE, there has been a tightening of budgets and Careers services have not been immune from this. Just because employability has been flavour of the month in recent times, it doesn't necessarily follow that the pursestrings have been loosened to hire more staff and expertise to help make these ambitions a reality. More likely, an increased burden of responsibility has been placed upon consultants and placement officers to deliver the goods, without the reward and incentive that Professor Irani mentions. You only have to scroll through the vacancy pages on these days to see that job security in HE is not what it was. You might find a role that you like but the chances are it will be on a fixed term contract. Short term fixes rather than long term planning.

Then there is the issue of governance within an organisation. From talking to colleagues at the PlaceNet conference, there were many who have found their jobs at risk. Some have had to re-apply for their jobs. Others have had their jobs re-evaluated. During such process, it is not likely to see a role scaled upwards. I myself have been operating under a cloud of uncertainty since the fabled word Restructuring was introduced at my university in recent months. I've had a hand in 123 students (and counting) securing placements during this academic year, yet my 'motivation' and 'reward' has not been financial incentive; it has been to not know (and still don't) if I or my role will have a place within the new structure. 

Interesting times afoot then. Hard work and endeavour don't always bring reward, as many students know only too well as the slog through placement application after placement application. The concept of incentive and reward creates a juxtaposition for staff performing their duties with an axe hovering above. Does that make for a rewarding experience? I guess only time will tell.

Update - full article from Prof. Irani now published on the Guardian website
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Thursday, 4 July 2013

Started a placement this week? Spread the word

July is here and up an down the country hundreds of students are coming to the end of the first week of their placement. Although a number of those on my courses got things under way in June, the start of July has seen a lot more placements commence. If you are one of those people reaching the end of a long first week on the job, well done, you've nearly made it and can turn that alarm clock off this weekend before enjoying what appears to be a glorious sunny couple of days.

Spare a thought though for your friends and classmates who have not been hard at work this week. I'm talking about the people from your course who haven't managed to secure a placement for one reason or another. Maybe they've not had the rub of the green and missed out on roles. Maybe they didn't really think about doing a placement for whatever reason. Maybe they applied for a few roles, were unsuccessful but then gave up. Now, having thought about them, why not get in touch, and give them a few words of motivation. Tell them about the first week of your placement. Give them an idea of what you've already been exposed to. This isn't a case of rubbing your success in their faces; it is a question of inspiration and helping them to get with the programme.

Yes it is July, and yes lots of jobs are already filled, but if your friends believe that it is too late to get a placement, I beg to disagree. In the first 4 days of July, as many students on my courses have secured a placement as managed in the whole of July 2012. We're talking about double digits here, not just one or two. And with plenty more interviews in the pipeline and a number of employers contacting me this week with fresh opportunities, I'm expecting numbers to increase further still.

So when you enjoy a beer or glass of wine this week to toast the end of your first week of placement, be a good friend and tell your mates all about it. It's not over for them yet, and a friendly bit of peer motivation may be just what they need to resurrect their placement search.

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