Fast Track: Learning on the job

Contrary to received wisdom, working through college can be beneficial.
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The Independent Culture
So you've got two big essays to complete by next week and, because your student loan has just run out, you've also got to work extra shifts at the local pub. Sounds familiar? Even if you've graduated, it's probably a reality that seems to have existed only yesterday. Indeed, new research shows that three times as many students underwrite the cost of their studies by taking part-time employment as did so a decade ago - a number that has grown by 10 per cent in the last year alone.

But the good news for today's graduate is that there is a radical change of attitude. Instead of the conventional condemnation of paid employment in term-time as being damaging to studies, graduate recruiters - as well as educational and student union leaders - are finally recognising its huge advantages.

"Commercial acumen and an awareness of the world of work are both attributes that have been traditionally lacking in graduates, who have previously been caught up in academia," explains Emma Bulley, a manager at Metamorphose International, a graduate recruitment and training organisation. "With increasing exposure to financial pressures, students are becoming far more astute and business-minded, and this can only be beneficial.'

According to research by Incomes Data Services, Pizza Hut has the highest percentage of students in its workforce, accounting for about 60 per cent of employees. If such a student approaches Bulley, she claims that the experience speaks volumes to her: "I immediately know that the graduate has expertise in time management and customer service, dealing with finances and coping in an extremely pressured environment."

Employment in supermarkets can result in similar skills, she adds, which is no bad thing when the Kwik Save supermarket chain employs 8,330 students out of a workforce of 20,600, while about 35 per cent of staff at Waitrose are students. At Safeway, Tesco and Asda, personnel officers agree that student labour has become "structural" rather than "casual", and at Sainsbury's some students are even given supervisory roles. "Working in these service industries offers students the opportunity to gain abilities which, let's face it, the lecture theatre simply can't," says Bulley.

The problem is, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, that many graduates don't even include this experience on their CVs. "They believe that if they do so it will appear that they didn't take their studies seriously, and that it will belittle their real capabilities. It's high time they realised that, often, the opposite is true.

"With students now paying fees and an increase in modular degrees that do not have to be completed within a limited time, we are becoming increasingly like America, where most students have to work part-time. But rather than being considered in a negative light in the US, it's well accepted that this makes graduates more entrepreneurial and therefore more marketable."

Andrew Pakes, president of the National Union of Students, adds that a US study reveals that spending up to 15 hours a week at work could be beneficial. "Many school-leavers won't have spent time at work and they need to learn about working alongside other people, handling the public and management culture," he says. But, he adds, this should not be an invitation for companies to exploit the student workforce. In fact, the union is campaigning for employers to provide better-quality jobs with training - as well as demanding that students be covered by the minimum wage, which they feel should be pounds 4.60 an hour. (From 1 April, 18-to-21- year-olds will earn pounds 3 an hour; over-21s will be entitled to pounds 3.60 an hour.)

For many students, working during term-time has the added bonus of assisting in mapping out career paths. Tesco found that of the graduates who applied for one of its training schemes last year, a large proportion had developed an interest in retailing while working in stores as students. "I stacked shelves while I was doing my PhD at Reading University," says Ric Sandifer. "I enjoyed the work and the people so much that I kept going with it, and wound up applying for the graduate recruitment scheme.'

Ellen Matthews, on the other hand, thought that advertising was for her, but got a couple of secretarial jobs within the industry just to make sure. "As soon as I saw just how cut-throat it was, I realised it wasn't for me. I got a second job to be sure it wasn't just the company I'd despised - it wasn't. So I had to rethink my whole career. At first, I felt completely heartbroken, but that soon changed to relief that I had made this discovery before graduating."

According to its latest Annual Graduate Review, more than 70 per cent of London graduates return to work in their home area. Dr Mark Parkinson, an occupational psychologist, predicts that the future will see students not even leaving their home towns to study, let alone to gain employment.

"What this means is that students' lives are becoming more cocooned and safe than ever," says Sara Welsh, a graduate careers adviser. "They risk leaving university with relatively little experience of communication with strangers - and therefore tend to lack the independence and confidence that graduates of the past took for granted. Working while studying is one of the few ways they can make up for this."

But if you haven't worked alongside your studies, fear not. "Just make sure you get all the jobs you can while waiting for your big break," advises Welsh. "Do voluntary work as well as paid work, and be prepared to work evenings. Added to your experience of dealing with the public will be proof that you're prepared to put in extra hours at unsociable times and help out even if there's no extra money involved. Above all, you'll come to see how lower-status jobs can be fundamental in reaching your higher-status ambitions."

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