Here’s what we should do about the lockdown on work placements

Stef Foley considers the impact of lockdown and social distancing on student work placements and explores the workarounds and alternatives

Covid-19 isolation measures have greatly affected placement opportunities for university students – and even post lockdown the impact of the pandemic on the economy will have far reaching effects.

For students this is a potential threat to the development of employability skills. However this threat will only be realised if we, as higher education providers, fail to adapt employability support and provision accordingly.

With emphasis placed on employability provision within higher education, university programmes are increasingly embedding work placements within accredited modules. In addition to developing employability skills and clarifying career direction, work placements are necessary for demonstrating students’ ability to apply acquired knowledge in practice. Learning gained from a work placement is unique and therefore difficult to replace and yet, for the time being, replace it we must.

We should therefore start to suggest solutions for reducing the short and long term impact of the lockdown, and explore the facilitation of students to create valuable, alternative, employability rich experiences.

Safety first, value second

During the initial period of uncertainty prior to lockdown, universities and placement providers had a decision to make regarding the safety of all involved. Placement agreements were reviewed and some took the option of viewing the pandemic as a force majeure, freeing parties from the initial agreement and thus ensuring the safety of all involved.

Following the announcement of the lockdown, workplace placements are now out of the question for the foreseeable future. Statistics are currently lacking but to date 31% of employers are expected to offer fewer placement opportunities as a result of Covid-19 (Institute of Student Employers) and 63% of graduate employers have cancelled work experience placements (Prospects).

Whilst safety of course comes first, we must be aware that students are increasingly conscious of the value of their higher education experience and its impact on their future with employability development being an ever increasing expectation.

Reactive, then proactive

Students relying on work experience as part of module completion quickly need an alternative to cancelled placements. The most obvious option with the least disruption, is to encourage the student to work with their placement provider to create a remote working opportunity. Some placement providers are already offering this as an option but where they haven’t, the student can exhibit proactiveness by beginning a conversation about turning the placement digital.

We do need to be prepared for organisations to be unable to create remote working opportunities. In particular smaller organisations for short-term placements due to resource limitations and perceived return in investment. In these cases, and especially in relation to embedded work experience, universities should be ready to adapt assessments and employability skill measures.

Reflection cements learning and therefore it is no surprise that many placement related assessments are reflective in nature. Creating an alternative assessment for this can be challenging since the new assessment will still need to meet the original learning outcomes. By considering learning outcomes such as ‘enhancing specific employability skills’ we see just how irreplaceable concrete work experience is. However, by framing the assessment to encourage students to consider this and to identify new ways in which skill gaps can be met, they will be learning to adapt and to be reflexive.

Additionally, commercial awareness can be developed by setting case study related assessments or by discussing opportunities and challenges associated with the industry and/or sector of the original placement.

Compensating for the domino effect

We can argue that as employers want career-ready graduates, they should be contributing towards bridging this gap, which in many cases they are, but those of us working in employability focused roles are primarily concerned with how universities can respond.

The majority of universities provide placement resources for students and these can be updated/amended to include remote working information and resources. For example, tips on working effectively from home and utilising digital technologies.

For modules that include work experience, employability objectives can still be addressed by creating a student-employer partnership whereby students collaborate in order to meet an employer-led brief overseen by the university. These mutually beneficial partnerships reduce pressure on the employer’s resources whilst also providing students with the opportunity to relate learning to a live business situation.

Entrepreneurial students could be encouraged to use time previously allocated for placements to work on idea generation and business plan development within a provided structure comprising a series of challenges, webinars and calls facilitated by university start-up services and entrepreneur networks.

Additionally, employability can be further embedded in modules by incorporating online hackathons, business challenges, mock interviews and networking events etc. Online technical skill workshops, complementary to course provision, could also help bridge any gaps created by lack of placement opportunities. Soft skill development is already present in modules, and academics highlighting as and when these skills are being exercised will increase students’ awareness of examples they can articulate when career searching.

We live in an age offering a plethora of digital resources and where collaboration is possible across the globe. Therefore going forward, universities and employers working together to optimise the skills needed for students living in a digital age can present a positive, innovative approach to employability provision.

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