Impact during the placement. The statistical data of engineering

Impact on Employability through Placements in Engineering Industry

 

Abstract

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Breaking into the engineering sector is one of the most
competitive processes in the UK. Fresh undergraduate and graduate engineering
students encounter numerous hurdles to
secure the job as a professional
engineer. According to Engineering UK, there is an increase in the student
population of 5% in 2015/16 undertaking engineering studies at universities and almost 1 in 5 are unable to find work after
graduation. This paper reviews the impact on the employability of undergraduate and graduate students through
placements; analysing the skills, knowledge and work experience gained during
the placement. The statistical data of engineering placement students at the University of Hertfordshire is presented to
understand the choices of the employers for undertaking or employing students
with relevant skills and expertise. The differences in the employability of
placement and non-placement students are
discussed. A comparison and contrast of the findings on employability provide evidence
to the value and significance of placement in breaking into the engineering industry. This paper comes to some conclusions including the need of
placements in the engineering industry
for better and efficient workforce for future technology, to reduce the gap
needed to continue the growth of
engineering sector in the UK and the
implications of placements schemes on choices of an engineering career.

 

Keywords:
employability, placements, engineering placements, skills development.

 

Introduction

 

Although 800 graduate positions in the UK were
left unfilled in 2016, there has been an increase of 4.3% in graduate
recruitment by employers in 2017 in the UK. Also, the uncertainty created by the BREXIT VOTE, only eight of the UK’s
leading employers have opted to reduce their graduate recruitment targets for
2017 (High Fliers Research, 2017). Unemployment rates in
2016 for the graduates (21- 30 years of age) has slightly decreased by 0.3% as
compared to graduates in 2015. However, graduates normally take longer than a
year to find an appropriated employment in their sector (Department of
Education, 2017).
The study conducted by Higher Education Statistics Agency for a longitudinal study of
destinations showed that 5% of the UK and other EU domiciled graduates were
unemployed for more than four years from 2011 to 2015. (Higher Education
Statistics Agency, 2017). Increasingly, employers are looking
for graduates with some kind of work experience to speed up the process of
their engagement with the organisation and existing team of employees. This allows the graduate to make an immediate contribution to the business and
establish a good foundation for their future career success. (Helyer & Lee, 2014).

 

 

An element of
work experience plays an important role in an undergraduate student for his or
her academic development and increases the prospects of employment after
graduation (Dearing, 1997). Work placements and
internships are not only beneficial in achieving better academic performance
but also enhance the learning experience and understanding of the theories
behind the taught subjects. Also, it
gives a student an opportunity to apply the academic knowledge in practical
business operating models to gain relevant experience (Reddy &
Moores, 2006).
This real-world work experience can go towards the enhancement of a students’
CV for career development. Despite the benefits, the number of placements
filled and uptake in the UK went down by 4.3% in 2017 as compared to 2016. (High Fliers
Research, 2017).
As a result, students have to demonstrate their ability for employability
through other mechanisms. It also led to
a steep competition for a graduate to get employment immediately after completing their first degree. This paper
evaluates the impact (both positive and negative) of the placements by
comparing the rates of employment and unemployment between placement and
non-placement students. In particular, the data of the engineering students of
the University of Hertfordshire. It also
explores the journey of the placements students gaining employment as compared
to non-placement students towards their chosen career path. Also, it also looks at the negative effects of
work experience for a student under placement organisation. In the context of
academic literature, consideration will be given
to the meaning of employability, how a
student can develop their skills for employability during the placement and their
ability to express these for graduate employment.

 

The meaning of Employability

 

There is no single standard definition of employability
from the academic literature. According to Ron
Dearing (Dearing, 1997), employability is
the acquisition of skills for life. Hillage and Pollard (Hillage
& Pollard, 1998)
define employability as ‘being capable of getting and keeping fulfilling work’.
Yorke (Yorke, 2006) identifies as ‘ A
set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes that makes
an individual more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen
occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the
economy’. The Confederation of British Industry (2009) definition refers to
employability as ‘A set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour
market participants should possess to ensure they have the capability of being
effective in the workforce – to the benefit of themselves, their employer and
the wider economy’.

 

 The government
of UK explains the meaning of employability in line with Dearing 1997 and
Leitch (Leitch, 2006) with a trust that skills
development leads to better employment and successive economic expansion.
Harvey et al. set out a differentiation between the long-term career skills to
support learning and employability on a continuing basis with early career skills
to secure employment (Harvey, et al., 2002). Hinchliffe and
Jolly suggest the term capability, identifying four things required to the world
of employment market: values, intellect, performance and social engagement from
which a graduate can evolve their character to attract the attention of the
employers. Students’ perception of employability is rather narrower,
identifying the connection between the knowledge and skills acquired during
their studies and gaining employment upon graduation instead of recognising
their potential, applying that potential in building long-term skills with a
sustainable career (Tymon, 2013).

 

Substantial efforts and input have been put by
universities to design the programme and curriculum which includes
employability which in turn leads the student to a retain knowledge and skills
required to gain successful employment. But despite, all the initiatives and
encouragement, employers continuous have negative feedback about the lack of
employability skills among the graduates (Confederation of British Industry, 2011). Ehiyazaran and
Barraclough postulate that if students are to apply their learning in their
employment than the skills development need to be set to match the real world
expectation instead of the classroom environment (Ehiyazaran & Barraclough, 2009). There are many
examples of academic literature on ideal sets of employability skills needed to
get a successful employment, but it is impractical to create a single list of
the skills required for a particular industry as the different industry has
their own sets of specific requirements of skills. Hence, there is a continuous
opportunity for undergraduates to enhance their employability skills through
designed curriculum or extra-curricular activities.

(Knight & Yorke,
2004)

The role of placements on employability

 

Placements are period of supervised work, where a
student spend a complete year (also known as ‘a year out in industry’ or ‘thick
placement’) or between three to six months (often called ‘thin placements’)
outside the university environment i.e. with a specific company in a specific
role to have a first-hand experience of working as a part of the professional
team. Irrespective of any length of time spent on placement, the student
gains knowledge and practical skills with a positive
contribution towards their employability skills. Also, they also carry their personal
attributes from one job role to another (Knight & Yorke, 2004). In agreement with
Mason et al. (2009), it is very well
accepted the fact that certain skills for
working can only be gained and polished at the workplace.
Although, to maximise learning process, the experience gained by a student
while at placement should be embedded into
the curriculum of degree (Bourner & Ellerker, 1998). Work placements are
ideal structure embedded into
undergraduate studies for personal development giving the student a flavour of professional work by
setting skills for applying and appreciating the academic knowledge to the significant business outcome (Neill &
Mulholland, 2003).

 

Occupying employability
skills add value to a graduate (Tomlinson,
2008).
Graduate employers now are appealing to the graduate who is actively able to add immediate value to their
organisation, requiring high adjustability in today’s uncertain and rapidly
changing trading environment (Wickramasinghe & Perera,
2010).
As identified by Mason et al. (2009),
students are more likely to be in graduate employment within six months
immediately after passing out from the university
as compared to non-placements students. The first employment after graduation
is very crucial as leaves a long-lasting impact on a graduate students’ career
success and goals. It is very significant to start in an actively strong
position which reduces the chances of underemployment (Mosca &
Wright, 2011).
Data from the University of Hertfordshire ( a reference
to be supplied later) confirms that employers are increasingly offering
graduate employment to students who have
undertaken a yearlong work placement with
them. Majority of employers in engineering industry these days are giving
preferences to the student who demonstrated their contribution at work
placement year allowing them to assess students’ full capability and
suitability to be part of ever-changing
and challenging businesses.

 

Finding and
securing a placement is one of the challenging phases
of a student life studying at the university. Not only they have to attend the
regular lectures, tutorials and laboratories for achieving better grades but also
undergo the long and systematic process of recruitment for successful
placement. A student typically has to
successfully progress through each stage of the selection process such as
online application which may include various types of reasoning tests for e.g.
mathematical, mechanical, psychological etc. tests, adding covering letter
explaining their inspiration and motivation to apply for the position,
assessments day which may include group activity, presentations, problem based
discussion etc., and finally personal and technical interviews. This
recruitment process is similar to the graduate
recruitment process, as it allows the student to have an understanding of how to prepare and develop
skills that can be utilised later to obtain and secure graduate employment. Selecting the correct candidate for potential
placement is demanding and extremely competitive process; rejections are normal,
and students seeking to secure a place need to be consistent, continuing to
invest their available time in utmost for high-quality applications instead of
giving up by withdrawing from the recruitment process to concentrate on their
studies (Aggett & Busby, 2011). Often
students face acute difficulties in demonstrating their abilities and skills to
convince the recruiter to secure an undergraduate placement. It is common for a
student to assume that lack of skills and
practical knowledge is a barrier for them to successfully obtain a placement (Raybould
& Sheedy, 2005).

 

Completing a placement gives multiple benefits;
in addition to strong employability skills, placement students have a higher level of academic achievements (Gomez, et
al., 2004) (Manfield,
2011).
Evidence suggests that academically strong and active students opt for
undertaking placements in the first instance (Surridge, 2009); having recognised the additional benefits and
employability skills along with improved final degree classification. Many other advantages including increased level of
motivation in achieving higher grades academically (Gracia & Jenkins, 2003) and sincerity &
high level of maturity having spent a year away from normal university
environment (Rawlings, et al., 2005); these attitudes and
attributes are distinctly reflected in the lecture halls quite frequently
between placement and non-placement students. Also, placement students
have a clear advantage over non-placement
students; completing the structured programme
for work experience that has been supported
through academic studies allows them to fulfil requirements of the professional
job by providing evidence of practical abilities. Purdue et al. (2011) recorded on the psychological
advantages of work know-how of placement students acquiring high morale and
high preparedness to face the greater demand of obtaining employment. With
increasingly sophisticated and complex graduate recruitment processes,
placements students can engage more
confidently due to the previous success in securing a placement and the learning
achieved through work experience (Branine, 2008).  

Data Analysis Methodology

A basic and
simple methodology was used to collect
and analyse the data. The data from career and placement services at the University of Hertfordshire was used to compare
the employment rates between placement and non-placement
students along with the data from the official
university data from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education Survey; required
by HESA, it measures employment six months after the graduation. With the
target population of all the graduates, data from 2014 and 2015 were analysed; the data for 2016 & 2017 is
currently unavailable as at the time of
writing the date for published data is not yet elapsed.

 

The other
focus of this paper is to have a qualitative analysis of the student’s experiences in gaining employment. This was achieved through and an
online questionnaire. Through open-ended questions, valuable data was collected
to understand student’s experiences, feelings and difficulties of the graduate recruitment processes and were undertaken the role of their placement
learning about the employment. In total
20 former students from 2014 onwards were contacted, half had opted for placement
and half completed their degree without placement.
Responses were received from 10 graduates with six with placement and four without.
The mix of years allowed employment experiences to be considered over a longer period
and whether the benefits of the placement had a longer-term
impact on employment than the initial government measure of six months through
the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Survey.

 

A modified
version of the questionnaire was issued
to current final year students graduation in
2018, to compare current experiences of
engagement with the competitive employment
recruitment processes. 18 responses were received in total, equally split
between placement and non-placement students. By gathering data from
current and former placement and non-placement
students, all possible combinations of
the study were surveyed with suitable
sample sizes as the questionnaire gathered rich, contextual data.

Observation
and Findings

 

The
Destination of Leavers in Higher Education Survey is completed annually
measuring students employment status six months after graduation. Collected by
universities on behalf of HESA, the data
provides an initial view on employment achievements. Due to the lengthy collection, process data is available for
students graduated in 2014 and 2015.

 

Year of
Graduation

Employment

Further
Study

Unemployed

Other

No response

2014
Placement

65

14

21

2014 Non
placement

54

13

10

13

10

2015
Placement

66

17

17

2015 Non
placement

27

10

63

Table
1 Destination of Leavers in Higher
Education Survey (%)

(the University of Hertfordshire Data gathered for the Higher Education
Statistics Agency)

 

Attributes and Skills of Placement Students

 

All students
who underwent a placement year were positive about their experience, making
them feel and realise that it was beneficial
in respect of their learning, both during placement and in their final academic
year, and specifically in helping gain their first professional employment upon
graduation. Majority of the students taking a placement year had planned to do so before they enrolled in the course, many
stating they had selected the certain engineering course especially because it offered an integrated work
placement. A couple of students responded that they have decided to take up the
placement after the start of their second
academic year having attended the placement workshops; they realised the value
and benefits of placements for personal and professional development for graduate
employability.

 

The process
of securing a graduate placement is almost similar to that for securing a placement after second academic year. One
student went through a total of six
different stages of selection before being offered a graduate job. Placement
students felt better prepared and less daunted by the challenges of finding
employment. They had the experience of
interviews and assessment centres and could cope with the challenging and competitive
process of securing a graduate job. Placement
students were more strategic in their approach, targeting their applications
more carefully; a technique advocated by the Careers and Employability Service.
Due to having work experience placement students had a clearer understanding of
the industry they wished to enter,
allowing them to tailor their CV’s and applications.

 

Demonstrable
work experience is a key factor for employment success; the experience gained
on placement is potentially more valuable than part-time
work as companies offering placements are committed to developing the student, probably providing experiences not available solely through part-time work. Through their placement students felt they
had developed a professional work ethic, an understanding of working in a
corporate environment, an ability to work with a range of people regarding skills and level within the
organisation and to work under pressure where deadlines had to be continually met. Articulating skills is a
common difficulty when applying for jobs, but
placement students were able to draw upon their work experience during all
stages of the recruitment process, providing relevant examples of the
contribution they could make to an employer.

 

The most
striking difference between placement and non-placement
students from the research was in the behaviours and attitudes exhibited by
current final year students. Placement students were more focused on their job search strategies appreciating timescales and engaging with the graduate
recruitment process earlier in the academic year than non-placement students. Other differences observed included
improvements in final year performance and a pattern of study that resembled a
structured work pattern. Placement students were more likely to study in a
fixed time routine and for longer periods of time, commenting that they had
become used to working full time and found it better to maintain the structured
pattern for study. To tutors, placement students appear to be working hard and
maximising their opportunities during their final year of study.

 

Non-placement students should not be excluded
from this point though; on an individual basis,
they were also working hard with the ability to achieve good grades and secure
employment upon graduation. However, when comparing patterns of behaviour as a group, there were
significant differences in attitudes among non-placement students, with a number not appreciating the level of
work and commitment required for the highest grades; such differences are not observed in placement students who
appear to be more unified in their attitude and approaches to employment.

Conclusion

The
continuing evidence from the academic literature and the findings of this
research indicate that a sandwich placement is a positive experience offering
students multiple benefits. Placement students are more likely to achieve
higher final classifications; exhibit
increased levels of motivation and secure graduate employment earlier. There is
evidence though that it is the more able students who decide to take the
sandwich course route; already being in a stronger position before taking
advantage of an opportunity to further enhance their skills and abilities and
so drawing ahead of the field. Non-placement
students can still perform well, but this is more dependent on the individual and their background.

 

Non-placement students who had graduated and
successfully found work did not feel disadvantaged but current final years were
much less optimistic regarding their employment prospects upon graduation. Placement
students are more strategic and structured in their engagement with the
graduate recruitment process. A place on a graduate scheme with a blue-chip
organisation is a highly prized opportunity; starting your career on such a
scheme has a long-term impact on
employment prospects. Placement students have already been successful in
securing employment, engendering confidence and providing the experience of recruitment processes that can be later used in obtaining a permanent
position.

 

Even though
placements are beneficial, as the number of students undertaking them continues
to decline, alternative mechanisms for developing employability skills must be
considered by students individually and by universities on an institutional
basis. Increasingly employability is being embedded into the curriculum, but students also need to recognise alternative
opportunities for development through extracurricular activities and be able to
articulate their skills and abilities to potential employers. In a competitive
market, employers are in a strong position to choose the best candidates;
demonstrable work experience and ability
to identify an individual’s potential contribution to an organisation through
their skills and abilities are key factors for success. Placement students are
in a stronger position to demonstrate their employability and have a
competitive edge over non-placement
students in securing graduate level employment.

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