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David Docherty

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How can offering quality work experience attract top talent?


David Docherty, CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) and Chairman of Placer, explains how a quality work experience offer can help attract top graduate talent.

The Government’s new Industrial Strategy requires a flow of high-quality graduates to power the economy. And, crucially, points to the need to increase opportunity for all students.

One of the most powerful ways to deliver on these ambitions is through work experience. However, there is a massive shortfall in the number of work experience opportunities available for the 2.3 million university students in the UK.

Underscoring the issue, the CIPD recently released a new report ‘The graduate employment gap: expectations versus reality.’ Worryingly it found that although many companies are crying out for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills, for example, graduates in these fields are more likely to be unemployed than other graduates six months after graduation.

How can we ensure that talented graduates have the necessary skills needed to make it into employment, and employers have the tools to attract them?

Part of the solution is improving access to quality work experience to ensure that, alongside education, students can obtain the knowledge and skills needed to be workplace ready.

To get the best talent, widen access for a range of minds

Improved workforce diversity and inclusion are long-held objectives in most organisations’ HR policies. However, having a diverse range of minds and ideas can bring business benefits far beyond the intention of such policies.

Creative tasks, product innovation, problem-solving and reaching new markets are just some of the critical business areas where a diverse team deliver improved results.

Developing a diverse talent pipeline starts with offering quality work experience to attract a wider range of students into your organisation from the outset.

Listen to the young person and find out what skills they hope to develop, and establish their goals, so you can adapt the plans accordingly.

However research from the National Centre for Universities and Business revealed most organisations cite word-of-mouth as the key channel to access work experience applicants, potentially perpetuating the existing demographic biases of the businesses.

We recommend using a structured process in which placements are advertised publicly; this benefits the business by widening access and helping to ensure young people are recruited on merit, not based on who they know.

An even better solution is harnessing the power of new technologies to avoid unconscious bias. Platforms such as Placer – a new work experience app that directly connects businesses, students and universities – uses double-blind matchmaking technology to connect organisations with a diverse pool of bright young talent.

Offer a quality experience from day one

To feel the benefit that work experience can offer within an organisation, it is critical to ensure that the placements are structured and well-planned. Whatever the length of the placement, make sure you offer each student a welcome session at the start.

This may be a young person’s first experience of the workplace, so it’s worth developing a welcome pack that can be shared ahead to ensure they feel prepared for their first day.

Alongside important health and safety information and agreed hours, this document offers you a chance to inspire your work experience student, by giving them a sense of what their time will be like on the placement and ensuring you get the best from them.

Put your brand values across, include photos of key personnel and do not forget the details, such as what to wear or where they can get lunch.

Share a schedule of activities for the work experience placement but allow some flexibility within this – listen to the young person and find out what skills they hope to develop, and establish their goals, so you can adapt the plans accordingly.

What does a good work plan look like?

All too often work experience tasks can be low level admin, or at the very worst, dogsbody tasks. Not only does this leave the student feeling undervalued and even disenfranchised with the organisation or the industry, it’s a long-term opportunity lost for the employer.  

Having a thought-out work plan will mean the individual can work without the need of constant monitoring, giving them a sense of independence, which is crucial in the real workplace.

Keep in touch with those who have undertaken work experience placements so that you can begin to establish a pool of graduate talent.

Liaise with colleagues prior to the placement to unearth small and interesting projects that the individual can take ownership of. Choosing non-critical work that would benefit from a fresh young perspective can be beneficial to both parties.

Take time to understand what areas of the business the individual is interested in and work to develop skills in that area. That said, rotate them between departments so they can get an overview of the company and understand where their interests slot into the wider business.

Use work experience placements to develop existing staff

Work experience is not only vital for young people entering the labour market, it can also work as a building block for existing members of staff. Work experience provides an opportunity for staff to supervise or mentor a young person and aid their development, which in turn builds upon their own professional and personable skills.

Make time to talk and build positive relationships

A quality work experience placement should give an individual the ground level understanding of the business and culture they’ve been working in, making them ideal candidates for graduate roles.

Many employers use work experience as a way to grow a pool of suitable future employees that are able to re-enter the workplace and (more or less) hit the ground running.

With this in mind, it’s important the individual leaves their placement feeling like they’ve played an integral part of the team and are able to reflect amiably on what they’ve learnt. The employer can contribute to this by setting time aside to sit down with the student post placement to ask how everything went and how the placement can be improved.

Finally, keep in touch with those who have undertaken work experience placements so that you can begin to establish a pool of graduate talent. With regular communication this can be ready for you to dip into as and when graduate roles arise.

If employers want the best, they have to be the best

Offering an inspiring day, week, month or even year-long placement can create a lasting relationship between you and a talented undergraduate, possibly translating into a permanent job at the end of their degree.

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