The power of placements: Why businesses must work with universities to meet the current skills shortage

By | November 5, 2013
John Turner

John Turner

John Turner completed both a BSc in Business and Administration Studies in 1967 and an MSc in Management Studies in 1971 at Bradford University School of Management (then called the Management Centre), publishing his thesis in 1974 as a book entitled Forecasting Practices in British Industry. He was the first person from the Management Centre to receive such a degree by research.

He has since spent over 35 years working in the European automotive industry for Ford of Europe and ACEA (the Brussels-based auto industry association) as an econometrician, business research manager, macro-economist, government affairs manager, and industrial consultant.

This interview with John explores what the very first placement at Bradford was like, what makes a good placement (for both students and employers), and how businesses can benefit from student placements.

Last year, The Guardian highlighted that sandwich courses – where students spend a year working in industry before completing the final year of their degree – were in decline, just at the time when employers say recent graduates are not prepared for the workplace and are lacking key work skills.

Since industry experience “puts theory into practice and prepares students for the workplace,” placements can provide huge benefits to both students and businesses. The placement year changes students into young professionals, who are often then snapped up by their placement employers upon graduation. It is a win-win situation for both the student and the company.

“Too many businesses are not reaping the benefits” of working with universities, says Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently published a report on how universities, business and government should work together to meet the skills shortage. The report advises that: “through universities, businesses can gain (a) access to the latest research in their field and (b) innovative employees in the form of students on work placements and graduates.” Both of these things can make businesses more innovative and resilient.

Innovation is good for business, and for recruiting the best staff, says BIS: “Enterprises that are “innovatively active” have roughly twice the share of employees educated at degree level than non-innovatively active.”

It goes on to say that businesses “also gain the opportunity to influence the design of higher education courses to ensure that graduates leave university with the skills that their businesses need now and in the future. While many businesses do engage with universities … there are still too many that are not reaping the rewards of collaboration.”

How Bradford University School of Management works with business to provide placements: past and present

All students at the University of Bradford today have exposure to the world of work on at least one occasion as part of their course.

Bradford-imageAs Bradford University School of Management celebrates its 50th anniversary, we examine the business benefits of student placements and ask John Turner, student on the first Bradford School of Management BSc programme (1964-67) and the school’s first ever industry placement student back in 1966, what he thinks makes a good placement. Read John’s story here.

How did the first ever placement at Bradford School of Management come about?

John Turner: “In Summer 1966 (on completion of year two on my BSc), I was offered the opportunity to become the Management Centre’s first industrial placement, undertaking a 10-week voluntary assignment with United Steel.

“The Management Centre at Bradford University wanted to introduce industrial placements into its degree programmes, to give students industrial experience alongside the academic teaching. As a leading UK business school, the centre also wanted to cement closer relationships with businesses.”

What makes a good placement and how can businesses ensure they benefit as well as students?

John Turner: “One of the main benefits to business is innovation and new ideas.”

“My placement was with the marketing and statistics department at United Steel, at a time when the company was keen to identify new markets and outlets for its stainless steel products. They wanted to investigate increased usage in vehicle production, in particular fitting long-lasting (but costly) stainless steel exhaust systems on new cars.

My main assignment was to develop a means to forecast new car sales in the UK over the longer-term. I was able to build quantitative relationships between new car demand and macro-economic parameters such as GDP, personal consumption and disposable income. These simple econometric models produced some useful results that provided a more explicit basis for the company’s long-term forecasting and planning.

The management at United Steel considered I had brought a new dimension to their market planning activity, and I felt that I had put to good use some of the Applied Statistics and Macro-Economics I had learnt during my second year at the Management Centre.”

What should companies avoid when planning placement programmes?

John: “It is understandable that students are often given assignments that are peripheral to the “critical path”, as essential work would already be covered by mainstream business activity. But what students and industry must avoid, are placements in dead-end, routine positions (e.g. manning reception in major hotel chains), that bring little for the student to build-upon, and merely provide an additional headcount to the firm.

“The best results occur when students can bring a new or unique skill to the placement. Allowing students to bring new dimensions to a corporate activity is a win-win scenario. Industry and academia need to work together to ensure such new dimensions can be identified and delivered by the students, thereby enhancing the industrial placement “experience” for all stakeholders.”

Five benefits of student placements to businesses

All of the BSc courses offer students a full year off to do a 9 to 12 month industrial placement, normally between the second and final year of courses.  There are many benefits to companies offering students industrial placements:

  1. New innovations – Access to university research resources, coupled with the focused academic knowledge that a student can apply with research into new products, markets or ways of working, can bring about new innovations in your business.
  2. Fill a skills shortfall – As placement students will have completed two years of their degree course, they already have many useful skills. Placement students can be brought in to fill a skills shortfall or to relieve an existing employee to fill a more advanced shortfall.
  3. Affordable recruitment option – Recruiting staff is expensive and not without its risks. Recruiting a placement student is affordable and with limited risk.
  4. Talent identification – Employing placement students not only fills a short term post but also allows employers to spot potential future employees.
  5. Flexible recruitment and employment option – Employing a placement student is only a short term commitment. They are expected to return to university to finish their degrees and you have no legal or moral obligations beyond the placement period.
  6. Modest staffing costs – Recruiting a placement student need not be expensive and their salaries are modest in comparison with graduates and experienced staff.

Which companies are offering placements and what are they offering?

Many companies already have established placement programmes for university students.

Aaysha Chikhalla

Aayesha Chikhalla BSc Accounting & Finance – work placement student Department Health 2012 – 2013

The Co-operative Placement Programme lets students “step straight into one of our business teams” with hands-on work experience, management skills training, regular performance reviews and salary of £14,500.

Kelloggs offers annual placement opportunities for sandwich students each summer, with a choice of either a year or 6 weeks over the summer.

CGI offers a programme for students who take an industrial gap year as part of a four-year degree that promises “real-life project experience and a genuine insight into our business.” Recognising the benefits of fast-track recruitment, CGI also adds “perform well, and we may even offer you a graduate position for the following year.”

More business case studies for companies offering work placements detailed here by The Times.

If you would like to discuss how an industrial placement student could help your business, contact Bradford University School of Management, Elaine Dean, Business Coordinator on 01274 234329 or

50th Anniversary: how you can get involved

2013/14 is the Bradford University School of Management 50th anniversary. The school is organising a series of events to celebrate. Staff, students, alumni, friends, partners and supporters from across the world are invited to share their memories.

Click here for more information on the Bradford University School of Management 50th Anniversary and how to get involved.

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