For many undergraduates, holiday jobs are spent surgically attached to headsets in sweaty call-centres, or stifling yawns through night shifts at service stations. The idea of being paid £185 a week, tax free, to enhance your career prospects by putting your degree subject to practical use in the workplace simply doesn't compute.
Yet this is how thousands of students are whiling away the summer vacations before their final year - thanks to the Shell Technology Enterprise Programme, a scheme set up by the oil giant to improve graduate employment prospects.
Shell Step, as it is known, recruits 1,000 interns each June for eight-week placements with small- and medium-sized UK businesses (SMEs). By matching undergraduates to companies suited to their skills and interests, it aims to promote industrial innovation while providing the students with valuable work experience.
Now in its 20th year, Shell Step has brought real benefits to hundreds of such SMEs. In 2004, 24-year-old Martina Rieder, a biochemistry and management studies undergraduate from the University of Sussex, devised surgical aids including a silicon skin adhesive for a private medical firm. Her creations - together worth nearly £400,000 a year to the company - earned her a £1,000 cheque and Shell's annual award for the UK's Most Enterprising Student.
In 2002, Danielle Holden, 20, an environment and economics student at York University, won the same accolade after inventing a simple tilting system to help workers at a small textiles firm in Accrington ensure their drums of bleach were drained properly. Her innovation saves the company £64,000 a year.
So it's hardly surprising that 94 per cent of businesses that have participated in Shell Step would happily do so again. The scheme is hugely popular among undergraduates, too: for each successful applicant, seven are turned away because recruiters cannot find ideal placements.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out why students find the programme so appealing. During internships, they are paid £185 a week, free of income tax and national insurance, thanks to a neat loophole that allows companies to classify these short-term earnings as a training allowance.
So who is eligible, and how can they apply? The answer to the first question is that Shell Step is open to all undergraduates approaching their final year. By its nature, it tends to appeal more to science and technology than humanities or arts students.
Most undergraduates find out about the initiative through trade fairs and marketing campaigns targeted at their faculties. Last year's most enterprising student, the maths undergraduate David Hewett, 23, first heard about Shell Step when he stumbled upon its orange logo at a careers event at the University of Warwick.
"Some people I know were looking to go into the City or to find accountancy internships over their final summer, but I saw the Step programme and thought, 'Oh, that's a bit different,'" Hewett says. "I was attracted by the prospect of doing something that would help me apply the subject I was studying at university, which is very pure and abstract, and liked the idea of working with a small company rather than a big one, where I'd be a small fish."
Like every applicant, Hewett was asked by recruiters to identify his strengths. He was then matched up with the right business. Within weeks, he found himself working for Tailor Made Systems Ltd, which makes mobile machines to test the quality of airport runway lighting.
By building a computer model that simulated the movement of the trailer-borne device, David was able to calculate how accurate its readings would be if it were manufactured at a more compact size. His work has enabled TMS to begin mass-producing a smaller version of the machine, which it has used to increase its market share by selling it more cheaply.
So why is a multinational like Shell making such efforts to promote innovation among the minnows of the business world? Louise Johnson, the company's head of social investment, says its motive is one of enlightened self-interest.
"Yes, Shell Step benefits small businesses, but our motivation in setting it up was primarily geared towards undergraduates," she says. "A better prepared stream of young people in the UK is going to benefit the economy, and that will benefit us."
Further information from www.step.org.uk
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