The statistics are compelling; students with relevant work experience benefit from a much greater chance of successfully acquiring a job once their education is complete. So, what’s having a student in the building really like?
In 2014, we were approached my MidKent College to consider taking an IT student into a work placement. We were told that the student, Michael, was in Higher Education, with some basic IT development skills and he would need something rewarding to do. We had no experience of working with students at this level, nor did we understand how much work would be involved or how distracting it might be. Nevertheless, we instinctively said “yes” and then called an emergency meeting … what had we just committed ourselves to?
We interviewed Michael prior to his start date. He was shy, infeasibly tall and, from head to toe, every bit the student. His lack of formality was coupled with his lack of relevant knowledge and lack of research on our company, our interests and so on.
Question: What do you want to do in IT?
Answer: I don’t know but I think the gaming industry looks interesting.
Response: We aren’t in the gaming industry!
Question: What programming languages do you want to major in?
Answer: Microsoft stuff.
Response: We don’t use Microsoft stuff. We use LINUX, Apache, MySQL, PHP etc.
Reaction: [motionless, wide-eyed stare, like a frightened rabbit paralysed with the fear of inevitability as it turns to see the tyre tread of a fast-approaching truck]
You’d think this might be the time we decided to qualify out and let the College know that there might be too big a gap to deal with. But no, we soldiered on.
We configured a space for Michael and constructed a proof of concept. If were to invest in Michael, we at least wanted to test one of our product ideas. With languages to learn, a technical environment to understand and everybody’s coffee preferences to note down, Michael was going to have his work cut out for him.
The early days were interesting. Michael apologised for asking so many questions about the languages he was using, about his method, the details of specific functions and so on. But, after a number of sessions, he, like any student interested in getting somewhere, soaked it up and built some code. Not only that, his code worked.
Michael got used to our style of shaking things up and dropping a specification in a new shape, of taking things out and putting things in on a whim as the proof of concept took shape. More than that, he started to enjoy what he was doing and we started to enjoy having him in the building.
He spent a couple of short days in the office each week over a period of about three months. He finished his course, declared that he’d learned a lot and that he loved being with us. We bought him some clothes vouchers, some cufflinks and said a big thank you to him too,
A few weeks later we received a phone call. “Can I come back for a year?”. Michael needed more work experience to support the final year of his foundation degree. We agreed, set him some new challenges that would support his course and settled on a start date. For two days each week, he wore the suit he’d purchased with his vouchers and looked even taller than he had previously. He took a proof of concept to near production-strength code, saw his first function go live in a commercial product and gave a solid presentation (in his suit) to his College assessors at end of his course.
Now, we’re helping Michael to acquire a degree by swapping a one-year course that would cost him a fortune for a two-year course with the Open University. He’ll work with us for three days each week and study for two. We’ll pay for Michael’s education, pay him a bursary and give him a full-time job at the end. We’ll have invested a huge amount of time, money and faith in Michael, but we believe that he’ll develop some great skills and experience along the way.
So, the case for work placements seems to be made. We never expected to take one and never expected this sort of outcome.
Was it a positive experience and would we do it again?