Explore, experience and connect: 3 steps towards employability.

Explore, Experience, Connect.Having a degree is a big advantage in terms of a lifelong career, but the transition from a first degree into the world of work is a bumpy ride, so RUSTLE has been talking to faculty colleagues and the Careers and Employability Centre (CEC) to explore ways that employability can be embedded in the Sussex student experience from the very beginning.

Richard Black (Head of the School of Global Studies) is quite clear that employability is a ‘priority for students and their parents’. He says that it is ‘a matter of pride that Global Studies has had success getting students into fantastic jobs. It makes me feel that the education we provide is worthwhile … but it is no good being proud of the alumni Sussex has been able to produce without understanding  that we need to keep that pipeline of bright graduates going’. Global Studies are taking employability very seriously because Richard says that ‘we want to live up to the name of the school, so we feel that what we want to do is attract students from around world who will learn about the world from variety of perspectives and then go out into the world. Essentially, universities are training people for professional careers and you can’t be a professional today without existing in a global labour market so we are aiming to train people to have the competence and enthusiasm to go out and work in professional global careers.’ Academic courses are likely to be the key focus for students and having some employability running through every academic programme from beginning to end  would be good model to work towards.  Nevertheless, there are lots of things which can be added around that and Catherine Reynolds (CEC)  explains that to that end, the CEC have recently reorganised and rebranded their work in three thematic areas, Explore, Experience and Connect which will take students from their first day at university to their first job after graduation.

‘Explore’ encourages students to find out more about themselves and the world of work, having fun finding out about the possibilities and being curious about what is possible. One example of the sort of discipline-based activity that contributes to this exploration is the Careers Forum organised by Istvan Kiss in Mathematics. As the departmental Career Liaison Tutor, Istvan organises the event in the spring term and invites all years to attend. Although the event was initially targeted at 2nd years Istvan has come to realise that it is important to start thinking about employability even earlier, and although this is something of a ‘one-off’ event it does run every year and the students who attend in their first year may come back year after year as their thinking about their future develops. The forum works well and is very popular with students who welcome the 4 or 5 alumni who come to talk about their careers and stay to chat over coffee. Istvan sees ‘a lot of interaction going on … and some surprise at the sorts of careers that mathematics graduates have’. Business, Management and Economics have had success bringing speakers from the business world to talk to students, and the Schools of English and History, Art History and Philosophy have invited in alumni speakers with exceptionally interesting stories to tell. A partnership with the careers professionals in CEC helps as Catherine explains that Careers advisers can assist students to learn more from these speakers and fill in gaps in understanding, ‘there are opportunities and CEC know what they are. Our LibGuide-style careers information pages provide tailored sources for students to explore from the comfort of their own computer screens’.

‘Experience’ emphasizes the importance of trying things out and learning more about the world of work. Many students these days will have part-time jobs alongside their studies, but the reality of the professional workplace may be rather different. Vacation placements and internships which can provide valuable experience are advertised on the CEC jobs database as well as part-time jobs and graduate vacancies, but Catherine believes it would be helpful ‘if degree programmes could show the interface more obviously, showing students where their course and the world of work could connect’. Global Studies tries to bridge the gap between university and career with some skills-focused courses that make explicit the ways in which academic study and professional practices inter-relate. Richard explains that courses such as Tools of the trade ‘deliver not only academic knowledge and the capacity to think, but also expose students to practical skills such as those used within development organisations. When it comes to applying for internships, placements or first jobs, someone coming in with a basic knowledge of how to do these things is at something of an advantage’.

Another way of giving students the opportunity to try things and gain experience of the world of work is through work experience and placement schemes. These are becoming more popular at Sussex and range from embedding small amounts of work experience into courses to more substantial formal placements. CEC is providing central support for placements which can be a full year (as part of a 4 year degree) or ‘half year’ placements. There are challenges in this type of learning and students need to be supported by preparation before the placement begins and by a placement tutor who can provide feedback during the placement. Schools like Education and Social Work have experience of supporting learners in professional situations off-campus but this is a new venture for many Schools. Assessment is generally by learning logs and students do their reflective learning using Sussex Plus (see more below), and then give a presentation on their work-based learning on their return.

Catherine says that placements can be significantly beneficial to students who make the most of the opportunity, but they are not the whole solution and  securing suitable placements in sufficient numbers is difficult. Placements cannot be guaranteed to all students, not least because employers often use placements as the first stage of a selection process and may have very specific eligibility criteria such as high A level grades.

There is also growing interest, especially in Global Studies, in the idea of international placements. The school already has a good number of students on voluntary study abroad and there is a history of students enthusiastically engaging in extra-curricular activities abroad that are geared towards careers such as the opportunities offered by the Nicola Anderson memorial bursary. Recipients of the bursary often work in small development organisations set up by Sussex alumni and Richard hopes to build on this sort of connection to offer 12-week professional placements overseas. He plans to pilot placements and gradually build up the range offered with support from CEC, starting with a few students working with organisations run by alumni, and then offering the 2012-13 cohort the option to apply for a placement abroad in their second year.

‘Connect’ is a key word for CEC: connections between students, faculty and CEC; connections between academic programmes and employability skills; and connections between the university, its students and the outside world. As we can see from the examples of Mathematics and Global Studies above, alumni can be a valuable resource either in terms of sharing their experiences and career trajectories or offering work experience opportunities. By working together, faculty, CEC and the Alumni and Development office have been able to develop some very good relationships which have led to inspiring events and placements for students.

Students also benefit from making some cognitive connections for themselves if they are to connect professionally and confidently to employers. Most of what students learn at university contributes to their employability, but Catherine observes that ‘students are not always able to articulate the benefits of their degree and to understand the value of the learning and the skills they have gained in their time here’. The skillclouds resource is one way that Sussex is helping students to understand and express what they have to offer prospective employers and Sussex Plus provides a way of creating an impressive webfolio which can be sent to prospective employers. In Mathematics, students have the opportunity to attend  a lecture and portfolio workshop led by Andy Howard  who is the  Careers Adviser who liaises with the school. Students create an occupational profile, write a CV, identify an appropriate job advertisement and draft an application. Istvan believes that this approach gives students the benefit of a careers specialist’s guidance and  ‘something they can use that is transportable’. By using the workshop to build a Sussex Plus webfolio undergraduates will be starting to develop the sort of web-based professional identity that is increasingly expected by employers.

Catherine explains that the Sussex Plus webfolio is ‘not Facebook or LinkedIn but has some similarities to both. It provides a safe space hosted by the university where students can start making connections between study and the world of work, develop their professional identity and get feedback from a careers adviser on a collection of documents, weblinks, photos and graphics that go together as a package with the potential to impress’.

The move to the library has meant that CEC are now ‘closer and more visible’ and more students than ever are now visiting, but still there are students not availing themselves of careers advice until they graduate – and that is making their lives much more difficult than they need to be.

How can faculty help students to develop employability skills?
Catherine sees positives in what is already being done within Schools but would encourage faculty to discuss with CEC what they are already doing and then engage in a dialogue with the Careers Advisors about including ‘small regular inputs’ that could include other experiences in a student’s university life which could provide material for a Sussex Plus web folio. That might mean making students aware of the CEC core programme which has workshops running every day on topics such as: CV writing; interview skills; finding work experience; international students and the world of work. You might want to add links to the ‘amazing resources on the CEC web pages’ such as the News and Events page or the information about the careers for students with particular degrees from a Study Direct course site or make a block booking for a group of students. Perhaps you would like to establish an employer or career forum, in which case CEC can help support the event and prepare students to get the most from it. Above all, perhaps, tutors can help students to see the process of preparing for work and developing employability skills as a normal part of university life from day one.

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