09/04/2017

How a student placement can benefit your small business.

How to make the increase in demand in placements and internship opportunities work for your small business. In this article we explore the reasons for the increase in demand for work experience and how to ensure both the business and student benefit.

Professional student work placements are highly sought after. Since a university education is becoming the norm, students are having to work harder than ever to differentiate themselves from the competition. This demand has led to a rise in the popularity of sandwich courses (a 4-year course including a year in industry – not a student course in catering).

Having work experience alongside your studies has always been a benefit – it’s not new, but the expectations of what classes as experience has grown substantially. Back in my day - (in the not so distant past thank you!), the part time student job in a supermarket was regularly highlighted in interviews to support academic CVs and to demonstrate a student’s abilities to juggle work and studies and take on responsibility.

Today this would be expected and not exceptional. According to the research company High Flyers, a third of top graduate employers say they would not hire a graduate with no work experience. These businesses have also increased paid internships and placements (14,000 in 2017).

Over the last ten years whilst managing graduate and student campaigns I have seen the rise of employability programmes within universities as they compete for students. These teams of employability professionals recognise that being able to demonstrate their ability to impact on a student’s career prospects is essential to their university’s reputation. University guides such at the “Times Top 100” and “The complete university guide” measure graduate prospects as a key aspect of their lists.

So how does this benefit your small or medium sized business?

  • More experienced starter work force: The increase of universities offering sandwich courses means that employers can expect more students to finish education with some experience of the commercial work environment.
  • More motivated work force for short term work: Students on sandwich courses need to find a one year placement offering them work experience (often it is required to align with their degree discipline). This means that you can employ them on a 12-month fixed basis to assist with any growth plans or short term projects ideal for short term peaks. As the placement is part of the student’s course it is usually assessed in some form by their university.
  • Create a pool of candidates for temporary cover: Students not on sandwich courses are increasingly searching for short term placements to build their employability skills. They are keen to access internships to cover summer and spring and winter breaks and may be useful covering staff holidays or seasonal peaks.
  • Potential pool of talented candidates for planned future growth: This is a particularly good option if you seek to attract graduates to your business. A student may come and work for you for a few months or a year. They get to know your business and may return after completing their education, significantly reducing cost of recruitment and training timescales.
  • Give your team a boost: It has been well documented by HR professionals over the years that a mixed age work force can aid, retention, broaden skills and improve morale. Many employers of students and graduates have noted that they can bring a fresh perspective – particularly if your workforce has been static for a few years and can help to re-energise staff who get to share their experience.

I am an advocate of recruiting and offering experience to new starters. We all had to learn somewhere and if we want to have a highly skilled new workforce then supporting placements is key. I shudder (and then smile) when I think of some of my “newbie” errors.

Downsides?

The main objections I hear from managers about taking on students are concerns primarily over training unskilled staff and about motivating the “young people of today”.

The key to successfully utilising a motivated student workforce is to ensure your internship or activity has a clear benefit for them. Gone are the days when internships were about making tea and coffee and getting the chance to observe a meeting after you finished unjamming the photocopier. Students are paying large fees for their education, £8354 per year for an average student according to the National Union of Students, and quite rightly, are more interested in learning skills that will assist them with future careers, not learning how much milky constitutes a strong cuppa.

Don’t think of a twelve-month placement as a source of cheap labour (the average one year placement salary is around £17,000 per annum or circa £8.70 per hour) although students often are willing to take on significant responsibility and skilled tasks, they will have their own objectives. The most successful placements and internships have a clear structure and some defined tasks. This does not have to be war and peace:

  • Think about what you need the student for (holiday cover, research project, specific skills requirement).
  • Test the tasks are suitable (can you provide training or re-assign technical tasks).
  • Set a clear goal and any objectives that is reasonable in the timeframe (even if only covering for a week).
  • Assign a mentor or “go to person” in the team for the student to request advice.
  • Provide a clear induction or some insight days prior to the placement. Highlight to the student how the work tasks will aid their development.
  • Review the activity at the end of short term placements or at regular intervals on longer placements.

It does not have to take long but putting in place a simple structure and ensuring the student understands what they can learn makes a big difference to success. Summer is coming this is a great time to test whether a student can make a positive impact on your business. Why not consider how a student might assist you with covering holidays? It could be taking on administration duties or to assist with event marketing or customer services.

Thanks for reading.