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Common questions about Digital and IT industry placements

This article looks at some of the challenges that employers offering industry placements in this skill area have been facing, with potential solutions for you to consider.

Specific skills and particular software

A lot of our work demands specific skills and particular software. How can we be sure that the student will have useful skills?

The starting point is a clear specification for the student, including:

  • what your organisation does, its values, and anything else which might help bring your work to life for the student, such as what a typical project looks like
  • a short role description for the placement, what’s going to be involved, listing projects, activities, and responsibilities

Ask the school or college you are working with for:

  • students’ course content, what they will be learning and when. Ideally, placements will be timed to fit with the course so that skills learned in the classroom can be put into practice when you need them
  • which software students are using for their course. Often students will use Java, HTML and CSS as their starting points. You might be using C#, Python, PHP or C++. Can you help students prepare, through additional training or online learning?

You might ask the college or school to have students prepare evidence of their skills, such as code they have written, show-reels or portfolios, to let you match their skills to your work.

Work with the college or school to identify and select students that they think will fit your organisation. Consider running a recruitment process appropriate to your organisation, which could be from formal and structured, to informal and light-touch.

Ask students for a CV – perhaps offering them a template to complete, so that they can describe their technical skills and not undersell themselves.

And, when you have identified the right students, agree very clear learning goals with them and their college or school that links your role specification with their course.

Capacity to host a student

As a small organisation I might not have the capacity to host a student for the full 315 hours.

You can share a placement with one other employer to make up a complete placement of at least 315 hours. Both employers would agree appropriate projects and activities that support the student’s learning goals.

It may be that you can offer a placement with another organisation that you’re working with on a specific digital project, perhaps a customer or a partner, or an outsourced function, allowing students to experience two aspects of an IT project, for example, as a developer and as a user or tester.

Extra space and equipment

I would have to pay for extra space and equipment for a placement student.

In some cases, the school or college may be able to provide a laptop with appropriate software. Of course, the software would have to work for you. If this is an option, curriculum staff can work with you to organise the technical set-up.

Talk to your school or college about possible funding opportunities that might cover costs such as setting up or enhancing internal IT and organisational systems to support delivery, and equipment, materials and supplies directly related to the industry placement.

Time getting students up to speed

When students arrive, we’ll have to spend a lot of time getting them up to speed with our company and our systems.

In many environments, induction for industry placement students is identical to full-time staff induction. Many organisations use on-line, digital and eLearning resources for induction, which could be suitable for students.

You could also offer relevant pre-briefing information about your organisation, perhaps visiting students at their college or school before the placement, so they’re better prepared when they start.

The college or school will work with you before the placement so that all parties (you, the student and the college or school) understand their responsibilities and make sure expectations are aligned. All three of you will need to sign an Industry Placement Agreement.

Communication and social interaction

Could an industry placement work for young people who may need help with communication and social interaction?

Companies across the tech industry are implementing programmes to recruit people with additional needs and to provide support during their employment. Industry placements offer you an ideal opportunity to see just how effective staff can be in a digital workplace, but for some, the transition to the workplace can be challenging.

Talk to the college or school to discuss how they prepare individual students. Could the college offer students specific support to prepare them? Could you adjust the working environment for the student?

Make sure the student’s supervisor is tuned in to these issues. If you can provide a mentor, these will be important topics to discuss with students.

Ready for the workplace

What if students are not ready for the workplace, or for the project and team-based approaches that we typically use.

Firstly, as part of their transition to the world of work, it’s going to be important that students are aware of the standards you expect. You could:

  • visit the college or school for a short Q&A session with prospective students so you can explain how you work
  • put together a short video or briefing pack for students about how you work
  • work with the college or school to recruit students who are likely to fit with your ways of working

The college or school will work with students to prepare them for the workplace. If you wanted to feed into this process, your input would be very helpful and welcomed.

Students need to be made aware of the professional behaviour, language and communication you expect, which may be very different to their experiences with their peers or with social media. Having said that, if students can’t relate to your culture or ways or working, they could disengage and not complete their placement, so a gradual, realistic, sympathetic approach is going to help.

24-7

Our projects are sometimes 24-7 and operate outside ‘normal’ working hours, sometimes with project participants in other parts of the world.

This sounds like an ideal opportunity to expose students to modern ways of working. When you’re planning the industry placement, talk to the student and their college or school, about how flexible they can be. Placements can take place outside of normal working hours as long as the student and the college or school are happy with this.

Understanding and getting used to flexibly delivering projects and tasks, tracking milestones and sharing files and data to fit with varying working hours, for example, across time zones, will be vital for future digital and IT professionals.

Unpredictable software development cycle

Our software development cycle is unpredictable and can happen at any time of year.
How will that fit with the timing of students’ classroom time?

Industry placements can be flexible, although you’ll have to work with the college or school to balance your workflow, with their need to schedule classes and to plan class sizes.

Talk to the college or school about patterns of attendance that might work for you both (options include:1-2 day release, blocks or mixed patterns) and discuss how unpredictability can be accommodated.

Time to supervise

We don’t have time to supervise a student

You could begin with a number of day release sessions to get the learner settled into your routine and ways of working. You could then bring them in for a longer block where they can be more independent, having got more used to the workplace. Over time, energetic, enthusiastic students with a growing digital skill set, should be able to make a significant contribution.

There are also direct benefits for supervisors and mentors, such as the opportunity to develop management skills, which may be especially valuable for technical staff who have had limited management experience. Some employers have devised schemes that acknowledge and possibly reward line managers or mentors who work with students, recognising that the employee has developed their leadership and management skills.

Agile principles and flexible methods

We use Agile principles and flexible methods (like Scrum, Kanban and Lean) for our digital development projects. In such dynamic environments, where we need to adapt to change quickly and deliver work fast, it’s going to be hard to guarantee and schedule time to train or support placement students.

What a great way for students to understand the realities of modern software development, and the flexibility that they’re going to need for a career in IT.

With the right student, you’ll get an enthusiastic helper, who can contribute to your projects, and help with logjams or peaks in your development cycles.

Business critical systems

How can I offer meaningful project activities without exposing business critical systems to inexperienced students? I won’t be able to allow students access to our live data and systems.

You wouldn’t allow any new employee access to network, server, router, firewall or database passwords, and likewise you wouldn’t for a placement student. Look for activities where students can add value and limit their access to ‘non-admin’ areas of your systems.

Realistically, some areas of your business may be too sensitive to host a placement (e.g. ‘card services’ team in a supermarket chain office).

Some organisations have identified real work projects that are not business critical. In some contexts, that’s a genuine option, as part of an overall industry placement. Looking at data, researching best practice, developing ideas and portfolios of new digital initiatives, working on development or test servers will help to reduce the risk whilst still giving the student a feeling of being useful and productive and adding value to your organisation.

Handling sensitive data

Our work involves handling sensitive data. For example, in games design, Non-Disclosure Agreements have to be signed by employees. I am concerned that students won’t fully understand their obligations and the need for confidentiality.

It’s important for placement students to understand the risks and implications of managing sensitive data, in the same way as it is for all your staff. Induction, training and supervision is essential.

You might put in place a confidentiality statement for students to sign, covering for example:

  • maintaining strict secrecy in respect of the business affairs of your organisation and clients
  • not revealing confidential information about systems and programme design
  • not using data for personal gain
  • using computer equipment and accessing the internet only when authorised and only for official business
  • your data protection procedures as a result of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the consequences of any breach

You may also collect, use, keep and possibly share personal information about placement students. You’ll need to explain your policies to placement students. Modelling a professional and legal approach will demonstrate to the student that you take data handling seriously and that they should too.

If students are interacting with the public using live chat or social media, supervise them closely and make sure they are aware of any risks.

We usually hire graduates

We usually hire graduates for digital roles, and we’re used to work experience students and internships. Why do we need industry placement students too?

In many industries, and in particular in digital and IT, employers are looking for ‘work-ready’ graduates, but you’ll know from experience that not all graduate-level applicants have the generic employability or specific technical skills you need. Industry placements could be part of a multi-pronged approach to your future talent pipeline, part of your mix alongside graduates, apprentices, and interns.

For example, in a social media project, industry placement students could work as part of a mixed team of interns and graduates on storyboards and scripts for content, obtaining media assets for content creation, or perhaps acting as a test target audience.

Typically, industry placement students will be aged 16 to 18. Younger people can bring a youthful and fresh perspective to a new project, especially as ‘digital natives’ who have grown up in the digital age and have been familiar with computers, the internet and social media from an early age.

The insights you can give them into the realities of working in digital and IT through a relatively long 315+ hour industry placement, will help them understand what you need from any higher level education or training they might do before they come to you in a permanent role.

Industry placements will give you a clearer understanding of how college and school students are being prepared for your industry and could identify potential high-quality future recruits.

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