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How to get ahead of the employment game while at university

Not so long ago leaving university with a degree under your belt pretty much guaranteed your chances of obtaining a job. But today’s graduates must be equipped with more than just academic achievement.

Recent figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of graduates leaving university with a first has increased by 125 per cent in the last decade. Last summer almost 15.5 per cent of students left UK universities with a first-class degree, and nearly two-thirds of students – a whopping 64 per cent – gained either a first or 2:1.

Consequently with the graduate employment market saturated and an average of 73 graduates going for every one job – the employment outlook is pretty hairy. Unless you avail yourself of another qualification: experience.

The Higher Education Achievement Report  

This academic year 90 universities and higher education colleges across the UK will be introducing the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR). HEAR, effectively a ‘graduate report’ awarded in addition to a degree certificate, details students’ academic achievements and information relating to extra-curricular activities. The idea is to give employers a fuller picture of the skills, achievements and experiences you’ve picked up while studying – key to future employability.

Currently it's up to individual universities as to whether it offers HEARs or not but given that in today’s job market experience is the door opener and closer, there are many ways of independently ensuring you become the total package.

Work placements

“Work placements are definitely the way to go,” says Simon Brandwood, head of careers and employment at Wolverhampton University. “It’s all very well having a degree but you really need inside knowledge of a business and you only get that by being there. Also an insecure economy breeds an insecure recruitment market – companies need assurance in terms of who they’re going to hire so increasingly they will ‘try before they buy’.”

This new ‘early engagement and early identification’ strategy has been adopted by companies such as engineering and development consultancy Mott MacDonald that organises two types of placements for students - an eight week summer internship and a 12 month industrial trainee placement.

“For us as a business, it is a great opportunity to identify students that we would like to recruit as graduates,” says Melissa Hopper, Mott MacDonald’s graduate recruitment manager. “This year we are aiming to take on approximately 100 summer interns and 30 industrial trainees. Students will be working on real projects and gaining valuable experience which is an advantage as work on specific projects can count towards their professional qualification.”

“Virtually all of the UK’s leading graduate employers offer paid work experience programmes,” explains Mike Hill, chief executive of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU). “Check their websites to find out how to apply and if no vacancies are advertised, make informal enquiries or apply speculatively.”

University placement schemes

Obviously many universities also already offer work placement schemes. For example, the University of Wolverhampton's Step programme, which gives students and graduates access to bespoke paid work experience placements in sectors ranging from engineering to communications, which has a 93 per cent success rate of their placements going on to full-time graduate calibre work.

Likewise Glyndŵr University in Wales.

“Since 2010 we have had over 200 engineering and manufacturing placements available to students and graduates,” explains Karen Lennox at Glyndŵr’s careers centre. “These are ten week paid placements within a company undertaking a live project with roles including project, software, production engineers. The conversion rate for turning our placements into graduate jobs is around 78-80 per cent.”

Get advice from other students

While plenty of work placements are being offered by universities and companies it’s often difficult to tell what the job really entails from a standard job spec. Cue RateMyPlacement – an online job reviews resource set up by three Loughborough University graduates.

“When we finished our placements we realised that if at the start we’d had more information written by students who had already done the jobs – we’d have found roles that actually suited us,” explains Oliver Sidwell, one of the founding trio.

Initially we set up RateMyPlacement specifically for Loughborough, with star rated reviews based on 15 questions. Later we started getting input from other universities – and five years on it’s got over 15,000 reviews, with comment sections, on around 2000 companies across the UK. You can look at any role, in any office, in any year and get some idea of what it would be like to go there.”

Outside placements are not the only way for students to supplement their income and gain work experience. For example there are enterprises such as mytutorweb.co.uk, which enables secondary schoolchildren to receive private tuition from university student tutors who can earn up to £12 per session.

Personalised, one-to-one lessons take place in a 'virtual classroom', accessed by both parties at the touch of a button. Which means you never have to leave your digs.

Raise your profile through networking

Networking is also key to raising one’s profile. To avoid expensive advertising and a lengthy recruitment process many companies recruit internally - via speculative approaches or people who are known to them.

“Traditionally networking was about who you know. Now it’s who knows you, your capacity for work and what you can do for them,” says Brandwood.

“Many science jobs, particularly at PhD level, are found through networking, so developing your network while at university can put you in a good position on graduation,” adds Hill. “Consider attending talks, insight days and conferences as well as joining specialist mentoring schemes organised by your university. Also look at contacting the relevant professional body or university student society.”

Get involved in volunteering and charity work

Self-promotion also comes through getting involved in volunteering and charities – which as Brandwood states, “gives people a breadth of experience and shows a more wholly developed person.”

Someone who can testify to the power of charitable work on future employment is Mansoor Hamayun, head of global strategy at BBOXX - an organisation that provides sustainable electrical power solutions across the developing world.

While studying electrical engineering at Imperial College Hamayun and two colleagues set up the charity e.quinox.

“Our inspiration came from medical students who always seemed to be doing something productive for charity. Medicine fulfils a huge humanitarian need but electrical engineering also has a social purpose,” explains Hamayun.

“So the idea of a solar-powered energy kiosk was born; providing people with access to affordable, sustainable and reliable energy. The electronics engineering department at Imperial is extremely supportive of enterprise and innovation, and once we’d set out our aims and objectives for e.quinox, we received the first £10,000 in funding.”

With the knowledge and experience that Hamayun and his colleagues accumulated the trio went on to form the for-profit company BBOXX.

“My biggest recommendation to any student or recent graduate is find something you are passionate about and work at it,” advises Hamayun.

“I would also say, use your time at university. It’s a sheltered environment where you have unlimited access to intellectual resources and can often find financial backing. I’d recommend starting a charity or society connected to your chosen career. This will provide you with valuable experience and illustrate your commitment to any prospective employer.”  

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