Karen Barnard has been the Director of the UCL careers service for 17 years, following two years as head of careers at St. Mary’s University. Her experience allows her to help students with motivation, interview skills, and finding the right fit for them after university. She focuses on work experience, which has become difficult to manage during the pandemic.
“We’ve been promoting as much virtual work experience and that sort of thing as we can, which is as good as you can get in that situation, but it’s still really difficult for the students,” Barnard explains.
Without in-office work experience, students miss out on the ‘try before you buy’ aspect of finding a career. This could lead to students not finding the right job to fit their skills and interests, but Barnard says that many graduates are concerned about finding any job in the wake of Covid-19.
“There are the concerns that a student will have, not least of which is living though a global pandemic, which is one thing, but also the recession, their future and what it looks like, and obviously the backlog of graduates we’ll see from 2020 and 2021. Their confidence in the jobs market is low, coupled with the fact that the work experience stuff has not been there either.”
To allow students to gain work experience during the pandemic, Barnard and her team have begun to focus on work-related learning which takes place in the classroom.
“One thing we’re doing to raise the standard is work-related learning. Not internships or learning in the workplace, but work-related learning. For example, we have job taster sessions and scenario activities where employers will bring real-life problems onto campus, and students solve them in groups. They’re working on real-life problems under the pressure of time and they get a feel for it,” Barnard explained. “You can do that reasonably en masse. Rather than one person having an internship, we can have a class of 30-50 in small groups all taking part. I think that’s a way to do things at scale, particularly when there are fewer external experiences available.”
We have established that work experience is becoming increasingly valuable in terms of graduate employment, which brings us back to our previous question; where does the value of a degree actually come from? Karen believes it’s not about any one part, but the experience as a whole.
“The value of a degree in today’s marketplace is about the whole package of being a university student. The research skills and study skills you get from having done a degree are definitely important, but I think the whole package is equally important. Co-curricular offerings from universities include work experience and placements, but they’re also about contact with employers, clubs and societies, volunteering work, ambassadorial roles for the university… that whole package is valuable,” Barnard says. “We know that employers look at experience from students in the broadest sense, rather than just saying ‘great, you’ve got a 2.1’.”
Barnard also warns students on the job search to really consider the roles they apply for, rather than simply ‘ticking boxes’.
“The approach that we encourage students to take is ‘don’t do a job because you can do it, do a job because you want to do it’. They should think about themselves first – what their primary motivators are, what their values are, then rank all of those things. Have that list, look at the job description, and then see if it applies to you.”