Although gaining a good academic outcome from their higher education is clearly highly important for students entering the employment market, what can really set them apart from the field is real-world experience. But that’s not so easy to come by … is it?
Can you please provide an overview of Sheffield Business School’s integrated employability strategy? What are its main components and goals?
Sheffield Business School at Sheffield Hallam University has a long history of applied education and commitment to employability. We do really well in terms of getting our graduates into highly skilled employment. However, this can depend on the course some students are on, their background, and the experiences they have while they’re with us.
So, what we’re looking to do in our employability strategy is be much more deliberate. We’re looking to embed work experience and industry exposure in every level of the curriculum, so that, regardless of whether you’re on a business management, accountancy, or marketing course at Sheffield Business School, there’s an element of consistency and integration in the curriculum.
What inspired the development of this integrated employability strategy? Were there specific challenges or trends in the job market that prompted its creation?
We have excellent graduate outcomes for our students, even though we often take more disadvantaged students who may find it harder to find these work opportunities. We’re really proud of that.
However, we know that students have busy lives. There are some students that engage with extracurricular activities really well, but for some it’s simply not a priority.
We therefore wanted to offer every individual the opportunity to develop their professional self as well as their academic self. To engage students in this, we wanted to embed employability into the curriculum.
Of course, there are challenges associated with this. it takes a lot of investment to get the structures right to support this kind of activity.
To ensure that every student has completed a work placement, we needed more work placement opportunities. To secure these, we needed to work more with businesses, and invest more in our central team to support business engagement.
There are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in all regions across the UK, and these present really interesting opportunities and projects that can cut across marketing, HR, and sales, so the student gets really varied experience on their work placements. In Sheffield, our labour market is predominantly public sector and SMEs, and we embrace that when looking for work placements.
We’ve also got particularly strong employee advisory boards. We’ve got one for management, another that is much more related to the service sector, and one linked to finance accounting and banking.
The employee advisory boards support us in a number of ways:
- Connect us with other businesses
- Help us when we go through portfolio and curriculum changes
- Bring opportunities around projects and consultancy for students, as well as long-term and short-term placements.
Lastly, we have an ‘entrepreneurs in residence’ programme, where we work with entrepreneurs who offer mentoring to students and graduates, sharing their knowledge and expertise on the skills needed to start a new business.
How does Sheffield Business School define ‘employability’, and how does your strategy aim to enhance it among your students?
I don’t think there’s a single definition of employability. For me, it’s about preparing students for the next stage of their life, whether that’s further study, taking a taking a gap year, or going into the world of work.
It’s really about giving our students the skills that mean that they’ll be prepared for varied careers. As part of this, we’ve increased the number of careers and recruitment events we hold.
Interestingly, around 85 per cent of employers don’t recruit for a specific degree. People will start with a business degree, and then go into finance or sales, for example, and then three years later they’ll be doing something completely different.
Our approach to employability is preparing our students to be very creative, adaptable, resilient individuals who can move and solve problems regardless of the kind of organisation they’re in.
In what ways do you collaborate with local employers to strengthen your students’ employability? Can you give examples of successful partnerships that have led to tangible benefits for your graduates?
At Hallam we have invested in a team that focuses on business engagement, skills, and employability. Their role is to talk to employers but not be product-focused. Instead of asking for an apprenticeship, consultancy, work placements, etc., they’ll ask organisations what they need, and then secure a range of opportunities.
Our academics work very closely with the team, and its members sit on our employer advisory board to get these opportunities out. In general, it’s about trying to match the demand from employers with the supply of our brilliant graduates.
Sheffield Business School worked directly with the city council on the RISE Enhancement Project, a partnership between Sheffield City Council, the University of Sheffield, and Sheffield Hallam University, which helps to place talented graduates into SMEs across Sheffield.
When students graduate, they often think of the large companies, such as Google, PwC, EY, etc. We worked directly with SMEs across the city to develop graduate jobs and fix a competitive salary to encourage graduates to apply.
When our graduates started working in these companies, they thrived. Often these graduates would start out in a six-month internship, during which they worked across finance, sales, marketing, and HR, earning a much broader experience than if they’d worked for a larger company. Some 90 per cent of these internships then turned into full-time roles, and the salaries jumped from around £18,000 to £30,000 within the first 18 months.
What role do internships, co-op programmes, and industry projects play in your strategy? How do these experiential learning opportunities contribute to students’ readiness for the job market?
Throughout each degree at Sheffield Business School, we try to scaffold the range and complexity of work-experience activities. Generally, this work experience is used as a stepping stone into a larger opportunity, depending on the course.
In the first year of your degree programme, you’ll gain exposure to industry through guest speakers, events, and integration with business. Then we’ll have a live project where students are asked to work on a real-world project at a small business.
In the second year, students will complete a short work placement. Some use the placement that they’re already on. Others we connect with different opportunities, so they can get that real-world experience. This placement is embedded in the module and it’s 120 hours of work that they must find, do, write up, and reflect on. A lot of people use this time to do their sandwich year.
Some students instead decide to start their own business. They get set up with the Hallam i-lab – a dynamic co-working business incubation space – and work with the central team there in coming up with an idea and working this into a business plan.
In the students’ final year, instead of a dissertation, they complete a capstone major project which will be themed around their subject. We have an extended consultancy project, where we work with a range of businesses – SMEs, volunteer organisations, major organisations – which set an applied project and a brief. These businesses then work with the students on the project over a 12-week period. Afterwards, the students present their solutions and recommendations back to the organisations.
Throughout all of this, we have a core element of professional development and reflection. Students are developing their broader employability skills. They’ll learn practical skills, gain work experience and exposure to problem solving, networking and data analytics.
Strong networks with local employers are often emphasised as a key factor in producing highly employable graduates. How has Sheffield Business School built and maintained these networks, and what benefits have you observed as a result?
At Sheffield Business School, we develop partnerships that are going to run for a number of years, so we really invest in this. We’ve seen organisations whose growth is built on the back of our graduates, and that’s great to see, but we have to invest that time to see the mutual benefits.
Our work with the RISE Enhancement project was received very well by SMEs. The businesses felt that RISE helped them to become more capable and confident in graduate recruitment.
We have also worked closely with a family business called Pricecheck, an award-winning international wholesaler and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) distributor based in Sheffield. Every year, we have between 20 and 30 of our graduates join them, and Sheffield Business School students complete placement years with them as well. Pricecheck knows that we have students studying international business and business marketing. They love our students, as they are talented, highly skilled and really add something to their business.
The job market is constantly evolving, with new industries and roles emerging. How does your approach prepare students to be adaptable and resilient in the face of these changes?
Students aren’t always able to articulate the skills they’ve developed during their degree programme.
At Sheffield Business School, we help students focus on the attributes that they’ve developed through their various work experiences, real-life projects, and the broader degree programme. We purposely develop their emotional intelligence, helping them understand the different ways of that people operate within a team, and working with people who are different from them.
To do this, we actively develop their reflective practice skills through assessment, so that they consciously go out into the labour market knowing their strengths and areas for development. It’s important that they have a good level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence; for example, how they use data to make informed decisions, how confident they are at networking and building relationships. We give them the language they can use with employers, helping them make that link between what they’ve done throughout their degree and what employers will be looking for.
There’s often a cyclical nature of relationships.
Sheffield Business School has a lot of academics who come from industry, but doing these projects with businesses keeps their industry knowledge relevant as well.
Similarly, we’ve had individuals from an SME who might then become entrepreneurs who then join our Advisory Board, or we might do some academic peer consultancy or a knowledge-transfer partnership.
Can you speak of any challenges or obstacles you’ve encountered while implementing this strategy? How have you overcome these challenges, and what lessons have you learned in the process?
Essentially, we’re trying to take something that was predominately extracurricular and embed it into the curriculum. There are numerous challenges that come with this. So, one is getting the institutional staff to buy into the idea that applied learning has pedagogical value. This wasn’t too bad at the business school, but we need to do it consistently at each level.
Additionally, creating an active employer advisory board takes time, so we’ve offered lots of administrative support for this. For example, we have provided advice on how to run an advisory board and the toolkits you might need to run an advisory board.
Another challenge we face with going from a select number of students doing work placements to everyone doing them is scalability. We worked directly with both the academic teams and the professional services teams to secure a greater number of work placements for students. It takes both commitment and investment of time to make that happen.
Professor Conor Moss is Dean of the College of Business, Technology and Engineering at Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University (SHU). He was appointed Professor of Work-Based Learning in recognition of his contribution to employability and work-based learning. As Academic Dean for a large college of 12,000 students and 500+ academic staff Conor continues to drive the College’s strategic growth through innovative portfolio and partnership development and a multi-disciplinary research strategy spanning technology, engineering and business.