Since we launched Unisource in 2020, to connect students with businesses to work together on tasks, we’ve been collaborating closely with Frances Gow, Head of Employability and Careers, at the University of Surrey. Frances and her team have been helping to raise awareness of the Unisource hub within the student community as a way of building commercial experience. We talked to Frances about the university’s approach to preparing students for the world of work.
Frances’ role is to ensure the employability of graduates and prepare them to take their first steps on the career ladder. In 2020, the University of Surrey’s graduates were recognised as among the most employable in the Graduate Outcomes survey, with 96% finding work or going on to further study after graduating. The placements team also won the National Undergraduate Employability Award for Best University Placements Service in 2019, 2020 and it is also shortlisted for the 2021 awards (supporting over 750 placements).
Frances told us: “Our system of students completing an industrial placement in year three, followed by a final year is embedded. Although it’s been a mixed picture this year because of the global pandemic, we usually place over 1,000 students each year. However, not all our students complete placement years, so we also encourage shorter work experience or summer internships.”
The University of Surrey has developed long-term relationships with local and national organisations who support the students in different ways such as advertising placements, running employer-led skills sessions and participating in career fairs. Some companies, like Dell, run a mentoring programme for women studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Frances has also been active in raising awareness of Unisource as a way for students to connect with local businesses.
Lunch and learn sessions are organised with alumni and the university provides support with one-to-one guidance with careers advisors, help writing applications or CVs and tips on using LinkedIn as a way of growing networks and reputation. The university runs an employability award and one of the modules is work experience. Students must complete 40 hours of work and Unisource tasks and reviews count towards the evidence needed for this module.
The experience of traditional student employment, such as hospitality or retail, is still valuable, but it’s been very difficult for students during the last year – with so many affected by the lockdowns. Frances told us that for many, finding work while studying is a key survival mechanism, not just about the experience: “Unisource is a great option because lots of students can’t afford a year out. It allows them to have the best of both worlds; to earn money and gain relevant experience.”
All work experiences are valuable since there are so many transferable skills that can be acquired. It’s also a great way to generate recommendations for LinkedIn or a CV.
Frances believes the most important skill for students today is adaptability; the ability to be flexible in changing and ambiguous circumstances. Self-awareness, competence in working to brief and deadlines, mental resilience, digital skills, communication and building relationships are also key.
In many ways, the Unisource experience mirrors that of the job market. It enables students to experience the world of work on a micro-level: you apply (or bid) for a job (or post) and are either accepted or not. Frances says: “Learning to bounce back positively from rejection is also a life-long skill and a reality in today’s competitive environment. The university does well in terms of graduate outcomes, an important measure of placing students in high skilled employment, but it’s also about life-long learning.”