Students and SMEs in step with each other

The STEP programme introduces talented students to industry, sometimes reaping huge rewards. Gareth Chadwick reports
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The Independent Online

When disinfectant manufacturer Saifer agreed to accept a local student on an eight-week work placement, it could never have foreseen the consequences. The student, Amanda Lucas, developed a new form of hospital disinfectant which cut manufacturing costs by 75 per cent, potentially saving the company £1m.

When disinfectant manufacturer Saifer agreed to accept a local student on an eight-week work placement, it could never have foreseen the consequences. The student, Amanda Lucas, developed a new form of hospital disinfectant which cut manufacturing costs by 75 per cent, potentially saving the company £1m.

Another student, Gar-Ling Ng, on a placement at Pact Engineering in Aberdeen, played a pivotal role in developing a prototype device that has the potential to save the oil and gas industry £14m on a single field.

Lucas and Ng are the two most recent overall winners of the UK's Most Enterprising Student award, run by Nottingham-based STEP (Shell Technology Enterprise Programme).

Praised in the Government's recent Lambert review of business and university collaboration, STEP is a business support service that matches promising undergraduates with work placements in industry. Accessible through the national Business Link network and with funding from a variety of public sector sources, including the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), last year STEP successfully placed 1,400 students out of 10,000 applicants, making it one of the most competitive work placement programmes in the country and certainly the most successful.

Nigel Griffiths MP, the Minister for Enterprise and Small Business, is a fan. At the 2003 awards ceremony, he said: "The STEP programme matches some of our brightest undergraduates with the kind of small firms that are seeking excellent, quality ideas to move them forward. The high-calibre mix of youth and industry can create an exciting buzz and some real and fundamental improvements to the way firms do business. And it cuts both ways - it also gives undergraduates an opportunity to understand the importance of small firms."

When STEP was set up in 1986, its aim was to provide students with work placements in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It quickly became clear that it wasn't just the students who benefited: the SMEs, which, by definition, had limited resources, could bring in high-calibre technical support for specific projects, at minimal cost.

"It was conceived as a social investment programme by Shell to help undergraduates get that vital first step on the career ladder, in particular to get them involved in the small business sector where graduates are traditionally underrepresented," says Charlie Holland, programme manager at STEP. "However, in the intervening years it has become much more of a business solution as well, hence the support from the DTI. There's a recognition that it's as much about business benefits as student benefits."

Pact Engineering had participated in STEP several times before taking on Aberdeen University mechanical and electrical engineering student Gar-Ling Ng for a 12-week placement in 2003. She was assigned to a project to develop a new kind of oil and gas pipeline cleaning and checking device, known as a "pig".

Because current pigs run in only one direction - the direction of the flow - companies have to build a loop in the pipeline to allow the pig to travel out to the wellhead and back. The cost of the loop is around £14m for a standard 10km stretch of pipeline. Ng came up with an innovative drive mechanism that enables a pig to be used in both directions in a single pipeline.

"Gar-Ling was exceptional. She grasped very quickly the dynamics of the business, the needs of the project, not to mention working with grumpy old men. She was very quick to learn, and through that, very quick to contribute," says Tim Derval, managing director of Pact Engineering.

Derval says that the secret of successful STEP placements, which are generally eight weeks long but can last longer by prior arrangement, is to have a clearly defined, measurable programme of work for the student to work on, and to provide the on-going support and mentoring necessary to maximise their contribution. "You get out what you put in. If you put no effort in, you'll get nothing back. But if you plan it properly with a defined project and measurable objectives, it's a win-win situation. Very few SMEs can afford to bring in external consultants for projects. Done properly, STEP allows you to access the expertise without the costs," he says.

Holland says that SMEs are ideal companies for placements, as the student is generally closer to the core of the business and therefore more able to have a real impact. It also means that decisions and choices can be made that much more quickly.

For the student, it is invaluable experience in a commercial environment. Recent research by Warwick and Stirling universities shows that STEP students more than double their chances of finding immediate employment after graduation.

Ng hopes to work in Formula One when she graduates. If the device she helped develop achieves its full commercial potential, Pact Engineering might be in a position to buy her the car.

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