Employer engagement during and after the pandemic

Employer engagement during and after the pandemic
Date28th Apr 2024AuthorRobyn VittyCategoriesStudent Life

This chapter first appeared in SFCA's collection of essays and case studies, Sixth Form Mattersand is re-posted here to reach an audience who may not have read the original book.

Since 2020 and the onset of the pandemic, colleges have had to get creative with ways in which they deliver employer engagement opportunities to ensure students get the most out of relationships with employers. At The Henley College we understand the importance of developing and nurturing employability skills in our students to prepare them for their futures. Through the college’s extensive industry network and advisory boards, we have heard a clear message that, in addition to formal qualifications, employers actively seek a specific range of skills which seem to make students highly employable. As such, the college aims to help every student with the development of those employability skills, such as creativity, awareness, resilience, decision-making, and self-organisation.

Each subject area has links with employers, both locally and further afield. The college is celebrating new partnerships with global technology companies specialising in IT networks, applications, and cyber-security, one of which is discussed in this article; other partnerships include hospitals and medical care facilities, the armed forces and emergency services, theatres and media companies, as well as local newspapers and publishing companies, where students taking humanities subjects can find out how stories produced for public consumption are written up, edited, and published.

Last year saw Cisco, global leaders in IT, networking and cybersecurity solutions, facilitate a number of virtual workshops for students at The Henley College, utilising staff ‘volunteer days’ to engage with students.

We are lucky enough to have Cisco’s customer experience lead for the EMEA region, Claire Bovill, on the college’s Board of Governors, giving us the opportunity to engage with this crucial sector; she joined the board after significant engagement between Cisco and the college in recent years, formalising and strengthening the partnership. The programme we developed together highlights to students the value of a career in IT, coding, or cybersecurity, and also develops the softer and more transferrable professional skills as outlined by the Gatsby Benchmarks.

Cisco created a curriculum specifically for the college, whereby employees from different departments used their five annual paid volunteering days to meet students and share their industry experiences and knowledge, helping to enhance students’ development and future employability. The programme took place as part of all students’ timetabled enrichment hours, and consisted of six sessions based on Cisco’s own professional development programme, with relevant Cisco employees and senior leaders allocated to each session. These sessions included students preparing and delivering a presentation on an area   of technology that they are passionate about, with feedback from facilitators evaluating their innovation, presentation skills, research, viability, and customer focus. Students also undertook a role-play exercise to practice relationship-building skills and agreeing action points; one such exercise took the form of a mock interview for an industrial placement at Cisco, to share strengths and motivations for a role within the company.

Initially, the sessions were delivered at the college, but as the pandemic worsened in early 2020, the sessions became virtual, with efforts made to maintain the same interactive, informative structure as we had achieved in-person. As all organisationshave found, virtual working has its challenges, but it was important that the sessions continued to go ahead and that students received the same quality of learning and engagement with industry.

Each session focused on something different, giving an insight into working for such a large organisation. The programme offered a great opportunity for students to find out about Cisco’s apprenticeship scheme, the roles they offer, and practical steps to help students apply. Though aspirational, with tough entry requirements, our students really engaged and came to see how these opportunities might be achievable for them. In 2020/21, seven of Cisco’s degree apprentices came through the college, and we have seen a significant rise in apprenticeship applications from our students in general. The use of hybrid sessions and virtual platforms in the programme has also meant we could offer real contact with an employer and training in employability skills to all of our students – including those going on to other destinations like university – despite the pandemic.

Rijuvani Shrestha, who studied BTEC Level 3 Business at the College, successfully secured her placement at Cisco following the programme. Rijuvani said: ‘The programme gave a really helpful insight into what kind of candidates Cisco were looking for, not just in terms of education but the kind of attributes a person needs. I’m really pleased about being selected.’

Rhiannon Dodson-Edwards, who completed three A Levels in economics, politics, and English language and literature as well as an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) at The Henley College in 2020, was selected for a degree apprenticeship with Cisco. She is now in the final year of a BSc in Digital and Technology Solutions through the University of Roehampton, while also working full-time at Cisco. Rhiannon returned to the college recently to conduct workshops with engineering and politics students, as part of the work-based project and dissertation she is completing based on the question: ‘Will increasing awareness and teaching of soft and interpersonal skills to students increase the numbers of females pursuing STEM at a higher level?’ To ensure that our students engaged as fully as possible, the topics of each workshop she conducted were aligned to recent lessons, such that students already had some background information. Students were challenged to prepare questions for Rhiannon about the ‘soft skills’ studied in each workshop, and teaching staff conducted a debriefing session with the students after each session, held immediately or the next day. This follow-up session allowed students to consolidate their knowledge and discuss insights with one another.

Reflecting on her work with the students, Rhiannon said: ‘I am so pleased to come back to The Henley College, as I feel I have come full circle. I wanted to visit all of the schools I have attended to help make an impact on others, and to have their input into my dissertation, because they have all had an impact on who I am today. I hope that my visit will inspire others, particularly young women who want to succeed in their future careers.’ After seeing the success of the programme, the vice principal Eamonn Eagan is keen to run it again in future years.

One major driver for Henley’s principal and CEO, Satwant Deol, in pursuing this programme was to forge a new kind of public-private partnership with huge advantages for both parties. We believe that the alignment of values between the two is a demonstrably effective way to fulfil many of the key objectives outlined within the government’s recent ‘Skills for Jobs’ White Paper, which calls on colleges to work with employers to ensure their graduates have the right skills to work in major local industries.

The college will now build on the success of the project by engaging with and fostering new relationships with employers, with a focus on a broader range of industries. It will then be able to benefit from their extensive knowledge and professional expertise to help us design our new learning spaces from an employer perspective, as well as shape our curriculum, to ensure students are being taught the latest industry- relevant skills for their future destinations.

Further reading

The Henley College

Gatsby Benchmarks: Good Career Guidance | Education | Gatsby

Cisco apprenticeships

Autumn statement: How to jump-start the economy and really level up by Jon Yeomans in the Sunday Times

Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth

Contact us by email at eega@henleycol.ac.uk or marketing@henleycol.ac.uk; or telephone 01491 579988 and ask for Eamonn Egan, Vice Principal.

Robyn is head of marketing and business development at The Henley College in Oxfordshire, and has worked in the sixth form sector for twenty years.

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