The Future You: Preparing final year students to transition to employment
Across the sector, institutions have been grappling with constructing meaningful responses to the challenge of employability. The complexity of managing the expectations of multiple stakeholders, including employers, students and parents, whilst meeting the requirements of academic standards is not to be underestimated. Business Schools have a history of recognising that employability, in conjunction with academic rigour, is central to the design of an effective curriculum. Furthermore, the merits and disadvantages of the embedded versus stand-alone approach to addressing employability and skills development is a long standing debate with no easy answers.
At the University of Bedfordshire Business School, we took the opportunity afforded by undergraduate review in 2013 to establish a clear position on what employability means in our courses and how it can be delivered in a cohesive manner across the full UG degree to all students. Our philosophy is that studying Business is conducted within the context of being able to apply theoretical understanding in practical settings and that this in turn would help to develop students who were attractive to potential employees. Much of the curriculum design therefore centred on the development of the students ability to develop, manage and solve complex and unstructured problems making use of an increasingly wide range of theoretical perspectives as they move through their university career. This helps to address many of the concerns that employers have regularly voiced about Business School graduates. There are however many skills that are not so readily built into the subject specific curriculum. Recognising this, we built an employability thread through the three years that would target some of the hard and soft skills that are required to identify employment opportunities and to take advantage of them. Therefore, the approach is a hybrid of embedding and stand-alone strategies aligned against a clearly articulated development thread that is consistent across all courses and brings students into direct contact with employers and the world of work.
At level 6 (final year) we identified that the key focus needed to be preparing students to be effective practitioners in the workplace, resulting in the creation of a unit entitled ‘The Future You’.
We ask our level 6 students to imagine this scenario:
You are in your first week in a new job and you bump into the CEO. She says "I haven't seen you before, you must be new. Tell me something about yourself". The students are required to begin the development of their Personal Brand; described by Jeff Bezos as being 'what people say about you when you are not in the room'. The Personal Brand provides the academic rigour for the unit and through the learning experience we are encouraging our students not just to think in terms of applying for work but thinking about how they become effective in work (this includes becoming an entrepreneur). The Future You' therefore focuses more on behaviours and attitudes in a variety of situations. It forces students to reflect on how they portray themselves, how they interact and how they might stand out without STANDING OUT!!
The unit is compulsory for all students across all the Business related courses and is delivered in course specific clusters to ensure relevance. Our aims for this unit are very clear and our delivery method is communicated equally clearly. Students are advised from the outset that they will be placed in a variety of situations that may often make them feel uncomfortable and ill at ease. The intention is simple; we want students to recognise their comfort zone and to develop strategies for operating effectively outside it. The principles of challenge and stretch are applied with a view to personal and professional development.
The Future You is delivered in 3 phases. In the first phase students are asked to produce a short video in which they describe their personal brand. Some may choose to do this as a Mood Board or similar artefact. The emphasis is not on producing a masterpiece but on the reflection about values, motivations, ambitions etc. We are challenging students to make these public and we encourage each of them to receive feedback on the content from as many sources as possible. The underlying question is a challenge “How well do you know yourself? In order to develop this even further we use an external company that provides personal profiling. The results are eye-opening and force a student to recognise themselves in a variety of contexts and understand their dominant traits. Later on we have workshops, kindly run by our Dance and Drama colleagues, which focus on role play, body language and observation.
Why do we use these methods?
The simple answer is that we believe that reflection, self-awareness and understanding are best achieved when we have been challenged so that events become more vivid. We therefore avoid the tick box, paperwork reflective process which, whilst easier to implement, does not have the same level of lasting impact.
Does it work?
Does everyone love Marmite? Feedback from the unit suggests that some students get deeply involved in this process and really enjoy the activities; others find them awkward and this colours their view of the unit. We are perfectly happy with this. Our aim is to challenge and by this encourage deeper awareness and reflection. Even those who do not particularly like the activities tend to acknowledge that they learned a lot about themselves. Some students reject the unit and do not engage, but some students do this anyway in a range of units and we all seek answers to that problem!
By Eliot Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Dr Cathy Minett-Smith, Associate Dean Student Experience, University of Bedfordshire.