Previously, students looking for part-time work or summer jobs were advised to take any type of role because, at that time, all work experience was considered valuable, and it was viewed as an indication that the student had drive, enthusiasm and a willingness to get on and work.
But those days are over. Career and graduate recruitment experts are now recommending that students build up a portfolio of relevant work experience as early as possible – before they arrive at university, if they get the opportunity.
Students shouldn't be dissuaded from undertaking part-time jobs or underestimate the valuable employability skills that they will undoubtedly gain from them, but should be warned that, when they graduate, that experience alone will probably not be enough to get a job. Many employers will require what they term "relevant work experience" gained either through a suitable placement or internships.
Prospective students therefore need to work out what industry sectors and job roles they might be interested in sooner, rather than later, and then focus on gaining work experience in these areas.
Many universities and business schools are offering programmes with built-in placements and internships. These are proving increasingly popular. Applications for four-year degree programmes at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS), which include an industrial placement, have been soaring and many more students are enquiring about the opportunities for internships.
The latest High Fliers Research into the Graduate Market 2012 reveals that a third of this year's entry-level positions will be filled by graduates who have already worked for the organisation during an internship or placement. This is borne out by evidence from companies such as Centrica whose 10-week summer internship scheme for predominantly penultimate year students has grown from 11 places in 2006 to 75 in 2010. Last year, Centrica filled 38 per cent of their graduate intake from this internship pool. The figure rockets in industries such as investment banking, where as many as 80 per cent of positions are filled by those who have undertaken an internship or placement with the company.
In his recent review into collaboration between business and universities, Sir Tim Wilson recommended internships and work placements as the way for students to improve their employability. His research revealed that students who either completed sandwich courses or had the experience of an internship were more employable after graduation. Wilson said: "I think we're beginning to see internships being used as part of an extended interview process. The evidence that a placement year improves employability opportunities is strong while a lack of work experience appears as a key barrier."
LUMS students go out into industry placements on their third year, but we work with them from year one to ensure they have the skills and knowledge to win a placement. There are no guarantees. They take a 15-hour development programme culminating in an assessment centre and mock interview before even starting to apply for a placement at the end of their first year.
The Office for National Statistics report in graduate recruitment shows the vast increase in the size of the graduate population, an increase of more than 430,000 graduates in the past 10 years from 1,063,000 in 2001 to 1,501,000 in 2011, which means a much more competitive jobs market for graduates than in the past.
Differentiation is therefore the key. It is vital that a student (or prospective student) does everything they can to make themselves stand out from the crowd. For higher education careers services, it also means finding a balance between supporting those on placements, and helping those without such valuable work experience, to secure a graduate position.
Louise Briggs, head of careers, alumni and employer relations, and Rory Daly, undergraduate placement officer, Lancaster University Management School