Placement: a sandwich year but do you get a real taste of the working world?

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Unpaid placements are becoming more and more common, with work experience in high demand due to the competitive job market, graduates need differentiation. Ellie Dolan, Jordanstown student who obtained an unpaid placement with Strabane Council believes all placements should have a salary.

‘I most definitely think all placements should be paid, not a huge salary but at least something. I had to get public transport daily and my lunch and do work while there and didn’t get any pay which I felt quite unfair. It also contributes to people losing interest and having an attitude like ‘why should I be here’. If it’s supposed to introduce you to the world of work surely getting paid would be part of that’.

When asked if every student should take a placement year, Dolan replied:

‘No, I feel it is entirely up to the individual, some have a very negative experience while others learn and enjoy their placement thoroughly. Personally, my placement was in a way beneficial as it allowed me to realise my course was not for me. It was just a little late.’

Many young people feel pressured to rush into a position without knowing the full capacity of what they are getting into, coupled with little guidance, this makes for mixed reactions…

‘I feel often it’s a difficult transition for a student to be placed among a group of employees who are partaking in the job daily. I felt often I didn’t fit in or couldn’t be myself because of how proper and professional the environment was. Often, I felt stupid asking questions and sometimes I wasn’t taken out on calls or complaints and was instead left to sit in the office with my other colleagues, which wasn’t particularly beneficial. I feel maybe taking two or three students would help each student develop better and be more open.’

Placements offers a great taster for the ‘real world’ to let students decide which career is right for them. Ellie, Over the previous year, do you think you have learnt more about the career you want in the future?

‘Being on placement definitely give me a bigger insight into the type of work I’d be doing as I felt in university they focused on material and content that doesn’t usually happen often within the job role. Within the first couple of weeks it was clear to see the most important factors of the job and what I’d be doing the majority of the time.’

However, sometimes placement isn’t for everyone.

When UUC Biology student Cealan Henry went on placement, he realised with less than two months left it wasn’t for him. ‘I gave placement five months, which is a good enough time to say I tried it. The travelling became a lot and I then realised that, that type of work isn’t what I want to do.’  Placement is a great taster for the real world. Whether it is successful or not, students are clearer on the future they want after. Wanting to get real life experience in a laboratory to find out if this was the career path he should follow, Henry realised it wasn’t the right path he wanted. When asked if he regretted it, he comments ‘No I don’t regret it at all because at the end of the day I still have half a years’ experience and I can use that knowledge and apply it to other tasks’. Cealan will be working full time in Tesco until returning to finish his final year at University of Ulster.

A majority of courses at university offer a placement year, some are even imperative. Sasha Doyle, who studies Computer Technologies at Jordanstowns, now in the latter half of her placement year at Total Mobile, comments on the occasional lack of guidance:

“In my honest experience, at the start I believe I wasn’t given enough guidance. Even though I am a ‘placement student’ who is meant to be learning and developing, I feel like I was left alone and expected to know things even though I had not come across them in university. For my role one of my responsibilities is to give support to internal and external employees without having support myself. I think it was all down to the previous placement student who was more academic than me and knew more things. So I think my colleagues just assumed that I knew the same things as the previous student had. Since then, it has definitely improved as I am more vocal about when I need help.”

Sasha Doyle elaborates at her time on placement in the audio available here.

In many scenarios, placement is the right option and teaches practical industry related information to students that they wouldn’t otherwise learn in the classroom. this gives them a year in the ‘real working world’.

Diligent student Kirsty Shanks who studies BSC Honours in Computing at University Ulster Coleraine. Why is did she go for a placement? “I find that going into final year I will benefit going on placement. Going out and actually doing the work will benefit me a lot more than going to a class and listening to it being taught. I feel that having this year of placement will look good on my CV for when I finally finish university looking for a graduate job”.

Graduates who have taken a placement are on the rise and are the preferred candidate for the job after their degree has finished. According to the Guardian, 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.

Digital Workforce Management Company Total Mobile, situated in Belfast offers opportunities of placement and work experience, their HR Business Partner Claire Thompson supports the High Fliers Research, ‘We have had a number of placement students who have excelled during their time with us and as a result have been offered a graduate position.’

Thompson’s advice for those applying for placements ‘Be clear and concise in your application. Always include a cover letter as well as a CV. Try and personalise your cover letter / application email. Use LinkedIn to find the name of the HR personnel or hiring manager and outline what you think you can bring to the role and what you want to learn from your time at the company’

When asked if Kirsty would worry if her course didn’t give her the opportunity to do placement, she commented:

‘I would not have worried before, I did seek a placement but it’s only because we had to. I would never have thought about placement other than that reason, but with the amount I have learnt this year I would definitely advise anyone who has the opportunity to take on board and seek a placement.’

Many students find difficulty in securing a placement. Applying the previous year to numerous places and not finding out until the last minute, in some cases as late as May. Not knowing if they should get accommodation at University or if they are living at home, this leaves students in a purgatory position. Kirsty, did you find it difficult and/or competitive to obtain a position in the company?

‘I did initially find it very difficult to get a position for placement, I started looking around November time and it was to about May I found a placement, on placement I have been able to obtain my position and have actually been asked to continue on with the company until I go back to university.’

Kirsty had passionately applied to over 30 companies seeking a placement, including BT Internet and Dale Farm. Her zealous effort for seeking a placement comes from how competitive her course is. “It is so competitive when it comes to get placement. In my class alone there are 80, then there are people from Magee and Queens. Being on an IT placement is great as this is such an upcoming career. It shows a student’s determination and passion for their course.

Whatever the outcome with their placement, every student spoken to can agree they are more conscientious with the career they want in the future because of their working experience.  According to The High Flier’s Research, with 50,000 more graduates compared to 2012, the graduate job world is an ever growing competitive market. Leading employers, irrespective of the academic results from candidates, will undoubtedly prefer a placement candidate with industry relevant experience.

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