The Industrial Strategy Council’s research paper, UK Skills Mismatch in 2030, argues that the UK’s skills gap is predicted to worsen significantly over the next decade. One of the paper’s key findings is that 2.1 million workers are likely to be acutely under-skilled in at least one core management skill such as leadership, decision-making or advanced communication. One way to address this challenge is for businesses and employer organisations to work more closely with higher education institutions. This could be collaborating with academic teaching staff to shape some degree course content, developing ‘real world’ projects that will support students to acquire the skills, behaviour and knowledge required in the workplace. Dr Angliss talks about an opportunity for local and regional employers to work on the consultancy project module for final year students and the challenge module (focussing on the UN sustainable development goals) for second year students at Plymouth Business School.
Getting down to business
Our role as lecturers and teaching academics is to identify, nurture and support talent; to offer our students opportunities and experiences that enable them to grow and develop their skills whilst in higher education, ensuring they transition to the next stage of their lives ready to embark on their careers.
The Business School’s students come from a diverse range of backgrounds; some may have had limited exposure to the business world before studying here. Perhaps their only engagement with businesses growing up was as a shopper in a supermarket, a customer in a cafe or spending leisure time at the cinema. To broaden students’ exposure to the business world, we endeavour to offer them opportunities to engage with a range of businesses at a local, regional, national and international level. Through opportunities like the challenge and consultancy project modules, students take on a real world business conundrum, overseen and assessed by external employer organisations.
Employers who engage with us at the university, and contribute to elements of the degree curriculum, get acquainted with our students early and before they embark on their professional careers.
As the workplace evolves, we have seen that these students (the next generation of employees) have different expectations of work. Many want their career choices to be more values-driven and are looking for an employer or organisation whose values align with theirs. They want their work to contribute to the greater good and seeking more flexibility in how, when and where they work. Businesses looking to hire recent graduates are increasingly required to focus more on their ‘employer brand offering’ to attract the next generation of engaged, skilled and hardworking people.
Employers who engage with the business school and contribute to degree course content have a chance to use this engagement to good effect. They witness first-hand what motivates, enthuses and inspires our students as future employees. This gives them insights into how they could position their ‘brand’ as employers.
Open for business
We have re-launched our undergraduate programmes across the school, ensuring we are keeping up to date with industry trends and producing employment-ready graduates.
The consultancy module foresees students working in small groups of five to six people responding to a real-life business challenge, shaped and developed with an external business. Each project group engages with their chosen organisation, discusses the project brief and agrees the project deliverables. The students then work together conducting market research, assessing the business environment and operations as well as exploring resource use and ways to identify potential cost savings.
Employers can choose a consultancy project scenario where students need to develop and nurture the particular skills that employer may require. Perhaps those skills are in short supply regionally. Through their involvement, the employer can grow the talent pool and raise the students’ awareness of skills that are in high demand; skills that make graduates more employable.
Working on the consultancy project, students can apply their external insights and thinking to solve a live problem the employer is grappling with. The employer has an opportunity to get external views and insights, tapping into an outsider’s and, in many cases, a young person’s perspective. This can help inform the employers’ own thinking and approach, helping them find a solution to the problem.
Employers who work with us on the consultancy project are involved with assessing the module at both the interim and final stages. They get to witness the students’ development first hand and sit in on the final presentation when the students deliver their findings together with a written report, seeing the full cycle of projects presented. The student project groups usually create an output for the employer business such as a training plan or a social media campaign. The employer receives a piece of work they can refer to and use in the future.
The challenge module aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). This year we are looking at the topics of ‘reduced inequalities’, ‘climate action’, and ‘responsible consumption and production’. The module allows students to focus on topics of their choice within these three areas and align them to their personal values. This contributes to their ‘sustainability education’ and ensures it is informed not only by their own views but also by others’ too. The students explore how this will shape the business world in future. The 2021-22 academic year is the first year that we are including this module. In future years, we anticipate working with businesses so that students can help them identify ideas and initiatives that will encourage them to operate more sustainably in the widest sense of the word. The businesses’ involvement will follow a similar format to that for the consultancy project.
We know that businesses have benefitted from their involvement on other courses and from receiving these outputs. Some have even implemented students’ recommendations. Once a good relationship is formed, employers often maintain contact with students once the module is finished, up until graduation and beyond.
The business end
Working with employers and businesses, and on real world examples, grounds students’ studies and learning in the commercial world. This is hugely beneficial, giving students insights into what today’s employers want and need.
Students have the opportunity to build professional networks. Networking is a core business skill and it is crucial that students graduate being able to build effective professional relationships. Some students have developed networks from their placement year. Some have been able to build their network through working on the consultancy project for three to four months. We know how useful a network can be in supporting students to secure a job after university. A number of students on a tourism and hospitality programme completed placements at a local hotel. The hotel was impressed by the placement students and maintained the relationship with them post-graduation. They also developed a graduate entry scheme to encourage some students to join their staff.
Students who have completed a placement often bring the knowledge and experience they gained during that placement to the consultancy project. They can also share experiences of actual problems being solved in a business environment. However, the consultancy project is particularly beneficial to students who have not been able to do a work placement; it presents them with an opportunity to engage in a real world business challenge, developing their communications and problem solving skills in a safe environment.
Employers engaging with students and inputting into the degree modules presents a win-win situation. They get to engage with the next generation of professionals, gain outsiders’ perspectives on issues and can identify skilled and talented people as they are about to enter the employment market.
Working in a group with peers, on real world challenges, helps improve students’ understanding of the post-graduation workplace. It provides an induction in the world of work. Some students tackle it like a nine to five job; practising how to communicate formally and manage their professional dealings. This stands them in good stead when they apply for graduate roles.