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Are work placements the best way onto the career ladder?

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29th Aug 2012
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After the popularity of his article on university alternatives, Nathan Pearson-Smith focuses on the concept of work placements.

Work placements, or internships as they are more commonly known, are becoming increasingly used by large companies to trial potential employees within businesses before employing them on a more permanent basis. A work placement is simply a short period of work experience, which can be paid or unpaid, and can often be part of a study course for university students.
 
I'll be focusing on three particular areas:

  • How internships work for those returning to education
  • How internships work for those seeking permanent employment
  • How internships work for the employer
What's attractive about a work placement to an individual still within education is its short time-frame as it easily fits in with what would usually be a six-eight week summer break for students. Work placements are also commonly used as an employment taster for students in year 10; those few weeks of employment give them a glimpse of the real world and a chance at some experience. Some may misuse this as a two-week holiday but for the students that take the opportunity more seriously, it's a brief look at their future careers.
"Studying your chosen career for two years and applying your skills in the real world for the final year seems an ideal career route. Should university courses be re-structured to fit this 'sandwich' format?"
At university level, a work placement is often offered between the second and final years of an undergraduate degree course. Courses of this nature are often called 'sandwich' courses, with the placement year referred to as the sandwich year. During this time, the students have the opportunity to use the knowledge gained in their first two years to solve real world problems in their placements. This offers them useful insights for their final year and prepares them for the job market once their course has finished. This is an incentive for the student to perform well during the placement as it helps with two otherwise unwelcome stresses: the lack of money in the final year, and finding a job when the university course ends. There's a sense of security there that can give a platform to build from. Studying your chosen career for two years and applying your skills in the real world for the final year seems an ideal career route. Should university courses be re-structured to fit this 'sandwich' format?
 
Placements work particularly well for individuals who are seeking permanent employment if they use the opportunity to make a lasting impression. Employers may use the internship as a way to provide an extended training program, and on review of the applicant decide to take on that individual in a permanent role - this would ideally be the best case scenario. Perhaps applicants seeking permanent employment even have an advantage over the interns who are returning to education due to their ability to commit more of their time. On the other side of the coin, this win/win situation cannot always occur, so what are the mid- to long-term benefits to the individual if a permanent job isn't secured at the end of the placement? The intern is bound to feel hard done by, especially if they felt they did enough to secure a role within the company.
 
Depending on your other commitments, the placement's 6-12 week time-frame could either be a help or a hindrance. Is 6-12 weeks a significant time for someone to make a lasting impact in a business? How can the employer analyse the person's strengths if they spend the first two weeks learning their way around the building and the basic ins and outs of the job? This raises the issue of the potential value of the internship to the employer, do employers recognise this short time-frame as a possible pitfall and only give the intern the laborious tasks that everybody in the business knows they have to do but don't want to. Nobody benefits from cursory efforts. Both parties have to be gung-ho.
 
The work placement program is one of the few training frameworks that particularly focuses on what's in it for the individual. Before a work placement is undertaken by an intern they should consider for themselves; what do I want to get out of this? Am I using this as an opportunity to build up my CV? Is this going to help me in get into my desired career? Once an established career path is developed, it's then a matter of what route to take.
 

Nathan Pearson-Smith is apprenticeship ambassador for Youth Connexions
 

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