Industrial placements are nothing new for undergraduates, and are well established in chemical engineering higher education. While there’s little doubt about their benefits – for student, university and employer alike1 – we still hear ‘tales of woe’ from undergraduates. Problems identified include a shortfall of placements, and for those that do get on to a programme, disappointing experiences due to poor communication between university and employer, and unclear supervision and management arrangements.
Recognising the need to improve and grow this area, IChemE’s Education Special Interest Group (EdSIG) consulted, over a number of years, with industrial placement providers, academics and students and has now launched a set of best practice guidelines written specifically for employers looking to give undergrads that all-important first taste of working in the real world.
While there are guidelines available from an academic and student viewpoint, until now there has been very little advice for employers. EdSIG’s guidelines place more emphasis on the aspects important to placement providers, and aim to increase awareness of the benefits to all stakeholders. Ultimately, we hope these guidelines, a taster of which feature in this article, will help increase the number of employers and students who take part in industrial placement schemes.
more placements please!
Chemical engineering student numbers within the UK (and also in other countries, eg Malaysia) have been increasing year-on-year for some time, and show no signs of letting up. While this is great for our community, there’s a serious concern that this rate of increase is generally not matched by an increase in industrial placement opportunities, effectively leading to a relative decline in the number of placements available. This phenomenon drives up the quality of placement applications, but the downside is that more students will miss out on these valuable learning opportunities.
With these increasingly large numbers of students looking for placement opportunities, sadly it’s becoming the norm that there are significant numbers of very good students who haven’t secured a placement and still need to do so even as late as a month or two prior to placements starting.
It’s also interesting to note that placements offered at small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are particularly low.
what’s in it for you?
The power of experiential learning for students is generally recognised and most of them learn very valuable lessons for their future professional practice. That could be specific technical knowledge, or the very important ‘soft’ professional skills, such as project and time management, teamwork, initiative, effective communication, and so on. Students with industrial experience typically not only perform much better in their personal studies, but they also tend to contribute significantly to peer assisted learning within various project/team-based tasks, providing much needed ‘real-life’ experience to the team members.
Companies who think it’s too much of an effort to arrange student placements are missing out, because for those that do, there are many benefits to be had, including:
• Placements provide a very effective means of recruitment, given that the students spend extended periods working on company sites, providing an ideal opportunity for an ‘in-depth interview’ process to take place, ensuring more successful appointments.
• Students often provide a valuable resource for project work within the company and bring in fresh ideas that may lead to innovative problems solutions.
• Improved links with universities – student placements result in closer working relationships with academic supervisors and academic departments, providing companies with direct links to research expertise that can be valuable across the company’s project portfolio.
• Raising company profile with students and universities – this is particularly important for SMEs and companies that may traditionally lack visibility within the higher education sector. Successful past placement students act as powerful ambassadors for future placements and graduate recruits.
• Staff development benefits – close contact with universities leads to increased opportunities in terms of company staff training through specialised courses provided by the universities. Placement student supervision also provides additional opportunities for company staff development and is a highly relevant aspect of professional experience that can be included in an application for Chartered Engineer status.
• Impact on work environment – a number of placement providers comment on the very positive impact placement students have on their working environment, bringing fresh ideas, energy and enthusiasm that energises the workforce in the longer term.
Peter Rew, chief engineer, energy at Atkins says that providing placements “has been a very positive experience for us as a company, and hopefully therefore the students, with 50% of chemical engineering placements returning as graduates. Different placement options will suit different companies, but what works well for us as a consultancy is to take on year-out students, usually prior to their final year. The benefit of such placements to us is that we can provide similar training to our graduate intake, with students having time to develop and provide a valuable input to projects. Students have said that the 12-month duration ensures that they get to do ‘real work that matters’...and by the end of their time with us they have a much clearer idea about the type of chemical engineering they wish to pursue, which is clearly of benefit both to the students and to us as recruiters.”
what is best practice?
The guidelines outline placement types, including the benefits and limitations of year-long placements compared to shorter periods of placement, and summarise the typical processes and timelines involved. They also look at typical responsibilities of placement providers, students and universities, including management and supervision of placement projects.
type of work
A typical work programme can, for example, consist of a single research or operational project or a series of smaller projects rotating through various industrial departments. However, the most important question to be answered in relation to the type of work is whether it contains enough chemical engineering content and whether it is well defined in terms of objectives and deliverables.
The most successful placements provide an opportunity to work on a ‘real life’ job of clear value to the industrial partner, during which the student works with a team of experienced engineers and scientists. The tasks should challenge the student but not go beyond their abilities.
Specifically, in the contracting arena, some companies experience difficulties in assigning placement students (or even junior staff) to projects for major clients, but these clients should be realistic in the sense that students are unlikely to be chargeable to client contracts.
management and supervision
In all placements, it’s vital that both student and host company communicate clearly their expectations at the outset. A ‘letter of expectation’ would cover at least the following:
• Clear description of the work programme and specific objectives.
• The line management at the company in relation to the placement, ie the roles of the direct company supervisor(s) and/or line manager.
• Performance measures by which the work during the placement will be assessed.
• Expectations of any academic work to be delivered during the placement and any support required from the company to complete this (eg access to supervision by qualified chemical engineers, provision of projects enabling particular aspects of academic work to be completed, such as control problems, design problems, etc).
• Responsibilities of the university supervisors.
Whilst the overall responsibility for the management and supervision of the student during the placement will be the responsibility of the employer, the academic tutor/contact will typically visit the student at least twice during the placement. This visit should include a short presentation from the student to their tutor and industrial supervisor.
It’s also important that students are given access to appropriate support and mentoring and routine staff appraisal procedures to help them understand their role and the effectiveness of their efforts. Universities often require companies to provide agreed forms of assessment. These are typically brief assessment forms which enable the industrial supervisor to assess the quality of the work delivered by their student while on placement.
a two-way street
Last year’s Secret graduate feature (tce 868) gave an anonymous, first-hand account of a student placement which was felt to be poorly managed. As an academic supporting numerous students in their attempts to gain industrial experience during their studies, I have also encountered similar stories over the years. I am sure fellow academics will have also experienced some disappointed students returning from placements with firm convictions never to work in a particular industrial sector. While this could also be viewed as a beneficial outcome for the student, directing their efforts and interest in a different direction, I am sure that primarily, we all want to see satisfied placement providers and students at the end of each placement.
Students need to recognise, however, that creating a positive, successful experience is very much a two-way street, and they need to be proactive in that respect, particularly if things aren’t going quite to plan. In addition to the secret graduate’s recommendations (“get your CV ready and start applying for placements now...”) I always tell my students the following: “Be prepared to actively contribute to the positive experience of the placement. Know what you want to gain from the placement and make sure that you discuss this with your placement provider right at the outset. And if things are not going the way you envisaged, discuss it with your placement provider and university tutor as soon as possible. More frequently than not, the providers are in a position to resolve any potential issues very quickly. They may even be able to facilitate a transfer to other departments within the company to provide a broader experience of the company’s business to the placement student. The placement will give you as much as you are prepared to put into it.”
There are a number of perceived barriers which may, despite the benefits to be had, be putting off companies from going ahead with placement programmes. These include cost of salary for student and supervisor, type of work available, and lack of capacity due to company size. In most cases, however, there are usually solutions available. For example, worries over confidentiality of work can be addressed using signed, legal agreements between industry and academia prior to the work. Similarly, the issue of work permits for overseas students is usually, in practice, not a problem as they are allowed to undertake placements if they form part of the academic course for which fees were paid.
If – for whatever reason – you think your company cannot really offer useful student placements, please take a few moments and read through the EdSIG guidelines2 . You might be surprised to find that most hurdles can be overcome and that your company can also benefit from providing placement opportunities, as many others do.
Jarka Glassey is a reader at the School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials, Newcastle University