Making money and contacts while the sun shines

17-08-2004

Once upon a time, student summers were spent topping up a tan, visiting far-flung places and catching up on one's reading, for pleasure's sake. Those days are long gone.

University holidays are now as much about finding a vocation as planning a vacation.

According to a recent study, 80% of Britain's five million students are working this summer.

Great expectations

Those venturing into the workplace, either for professional work placements or temporary vacation work, will be doing so for different reasons.

Work experience may once have been seen as an informal and unpredictable trade-off between companies' need for extra pairs of hands and students' desire to earn valuable cash.

However, student expectations of what they can get out of their summer exertions have never been higher.

This applies both to how much they can earn and the potential leg-up it can give to their careers.

The ever increasing financial squeeze has meant that, for most students, the search for a paid summer job is a question of how not if.

Most popular student summer jobs
  • Bar staff: 23%
  • Office staff: 19%
  • Shop workers: 16%:
  • Teachers: 1%
  • Bookmakers: 0.3%
  • Lifeguards: 0.2%
    Source: Royal Bank of Scotland
A recent survey by the Royal Bank of Scotland found that 90% of students expect to be paid for the work they do.

With student debts spiralling, earnings calculations are the first consideration for students in the type of work they choose.

According to the bank, students expect to earn an average of more than �1,500 from summer jobs this year.

Unsurprisingly, the number of students prepared to work for nothing is rapidly decreasing.

The type of jobs on offer is seemingly wider than ever.

While most will be working in a bar or shop, others will be spending the summer as tour guides, bookmakers and even lifeguards.

According to Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, employers value any form of work experience.

"Broadly speaking, it doesn't matter what experience you undertake," he says.

"What matters is that you can reflect on what you have learnt and demonstrate that in the recruitment process."

Financial imperative

At the same time, some students are prepared to look beyond short term financial imperatives towards longer term career aspirations.

For many employers, summer work placements are an established first step in the graduate recruitment process.

Several of the UK's leading blue-chip companies, and others within the accountancy, finance and legal professions, have long established and highly structured work experience programmes.

They provide employers with an early opportunity to identify potential recruits.

Students are able to enhance their career prospects by taking part in an organised and challenging experience.

However, the challenges for small and medium sized companies looking to do likewise are far greater.

"There are a lot of small businesses which are wary of taking on anyone for work experience because they do not know how to go about it," says Liz Rhodes, director of the National Council for Work Experience.

Making the tea

This reluctance has inevitably resulted in some bad experiences on both sides.

"Horror stories do happen," says Ms Rhodes. "There are instances where people have turned up and found that nobody is expecting them. They end up sitting in the corner, making the tea and doing the filing."

In an to effort better to equip companies, the National Council recently joined forces with Nottingham University to produce a practical toolkit for employers to help them manage work experience schemes.

The document sets out how companies should go about selecting candidates, how to set up training programmes and how to carry out appraisals.

One well established scheme which helps small firms exploit the value of work experience is the Shell Technology Enterprise Programme (STEP).

Set up in 1986 and backed by Shell and the Department of Trade and Industry, the scheme matches companies with fewer than 250 staff with local undergraduates who have relevant skills.

Relevant skills

The company chooses a project of commercial significance and selects a student to help carry it out.

How students should approach work experience
  • Be realistic about what you have to offer
  • Know your employment rights
  • Make the most of being there
  • Think about the skills you use
  • Keep in touch with your contacts
In 1998, Strathclyde University engineering student Jamie MacSween took a placement with Autosonics, an Alloa-based supplier to the auto industry.

Mr MacSween helped deliver the production of a new device allowing drivers to judge their proximity to other cars when reversing.

How businesses should approach work experience
  • Give students specific tasks
  • Give students a job description
  • Provide students with a mentor
  • Pay students a proper fee for their work
  • Give regular feedback and a proper appraisal
After graduating and spending a year working for Italian auto giant Fiat, Mr MacSween was approached in 2000 to return to Autosonics, this time as managing director.

Mr MacSween says the experience he gained on the placement was vital.

"It's all very well having a degree which allows you to get a job, " he says. "But practical experience is something which employers are looking for."

Mr MacSween admits that he could have earnt more money that summer by working in a bar.

However, he encourages current undergraduates to look at the "bigger picture" of their own career paths.

"The experience you get is invaluable even if you don't enjoy the whole thing," he says.

"You find out about the skills you have learnt at University and how to apply them in the real world. It is also advantageous in terms of getting a better degree."

By Gavin Stamp
BBC News Online business reporter

BBC News

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