Wednesday, 5 September 2012

STEM: Industrial placements

Many government reports have identified that Higher Education (HE) has a duty to not only educate, but also to improve the employability skills of their graduates and postgraduates (eg, the 1963 Robbins Report, the 1997 Dearing Report and the 2002 Roberts Review).  The Higher Education Authority defines “employability skills” as
“a set of achievements, (skills, understandings and personal attributes) that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy”.
Work placements and internships are seen as a key factor in gaining employability skills. This was supported by a range of institutions providing evidence to the Select Committee inquiry, including the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Russell Group of universities, industry (both Small and Medium Enterprises [SMEs] and large companies) and a student panel.

However, there was perceived to be a disconnect between this universal support and the actual provision of industrial placements. The report suggested that a few, select universities offer STEM placements, and most of these are with large companies. The majority of SMEs don’t offer placements, partly due to their perceived value to the company and the resource required to manage them, but also due to the potential barriers of interacting with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

In this respect, chemistry students are fortunate. Of the 15 highest ranking chemistry departments in the UK (according to The Complete University Guide 2013), the vast majority offer an MChem or MSci course with an industrial placement. This is generally a 12-month placement in the third year (Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Southampton, Surrey and Warwick), or final year (Durham and York). 

The Scottish universities in the top 15 - Edinburgh, St Andrews and Strathclyde - offer a 12-month placement in the fourth year of their 5-year chemistry course, although high achievers may be able to fast-track and avoid taking the first, foundation year of the programme. Southampton and Warwick additionally offer MChem courses with a 6-month industrial placement, while Imperial College has chosen to extend their MSci course to five years, with the fourth year in industry. Only Oxford and Cambridge do not appear to offer chemistry degrees with industrial training.

Regarding internships, the Science Council noted that
“the number of [graduate internship] vacancies in STEM industries seems  to be much lower than in many other sectors... and that it is easier for a STEM graduate to find an internship in a business-oriented environment than in a scientific or technical one... STEM  graduates [also] appear to be  less likely than other graduates to pursue internships. Given the call from employers for graduates with higher levels of practical and technical skills, it was surprising therefore that there are very few genuinely scientific or technical internships for graduates”.
The Select Committee made two recommendations in this section of the report. First, to find a way to incentivise employers to offer more work placements and encourage more students to take them up. Second, to create a central database of available industrial placements, which could be included in the Graduate Talent Pool service.  This was a site launched in 2009 by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, designed to help new and recent graduates gain work experience by offering a selection of internships, including in the “scientific services” sector. 

While many universities already have links with large companies, this service could be an effective way for SMEs to register their interest in offering scientific industrial placements. If properly administered, popularised and advertised (to both clients and companies), this could potentially become the key repository for students and graduates seeking placements and internships, rather than having to search multiple graduate and job sites. In the meantime, companies wanting to advertise positions would be well advised to look to the sites of professional organisations, especially if they follow the example of Chemistry World Jobs and offer free advertising for industrial placements and internships.

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