Building partnerships between business and the tertiary sector is key to producing job-ready graduates.
The academic year takes up just two-thirds of the calendar year for many students, so undergraduates regularly hunt for a full-time summer job to help fund their studies.
Over the coming months, those seeking vacancies will turn to their university’s careers office as a first point of call.
As hard as they may try, however, those working in the careers office in any university will be stretched to do anything more than point a student towards a job advertisement.
Despite their importance, the careers office on most campuses invariably runs on the smell of an oily rag. And requests for jobs to keep students out of financial strife, or to prepare them for the real world of work, far outstrip the number of summertime vacancies in their databases.
Yet efforts to better prepare students for the workforce is an ongoing debate in most universities, at a time when businesses regularly point the finger at the tertiary education sector for failing to produce job-ready graduates.
Once, work experience was all about doing the photocopying and making cups of tea in return for the chance to observe how an office worked.
These days, however, many students are offered work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities as part of their undergraduate programs.
WIL can include supervised practicums, internships, service-learning arrangements, simulations, and work-based projects.
Typically managed by academics and professional staff via schools or faculties, WIL is unpaid and normally delivers credit towards an undergraduate degree.
But what if the careers office was charged – and resourced – to play a much stronger leadership role in preparing students for the workplace?
What if careers office staff picked up where academic programs finished off? And what if they upped the ante to help even more students make better use of significant periods of their downtime: the four-week break between semesters and the 12 weeks over summer?
Assisting students to secure up to 16 weeks of full-time paid work each year to fill in break periods may seem like an impossible task.
Since 2010, however, Australian non-profit social enterprise, CareerTrackers, has delivered a unique and successful model that all universities can learn from because it goes beyond pointing students towards a database of employment vacancies.
CareerTrackers assists indigenous university students working in a variety of disciplines to obtain in-depth work experience in the form of paid internships, which occupy a student’s winter and summer study breaks.
Originally created to boost the number of indigenous employees in workplaces, CareerTrackers’ internships have enabled students to gain first-hand workplace experience and provided financial support to assist students complete their degrees.
Most student interns remain attached to the same company throughout their degree program. This means that, once an intern completes their degree, many students transition to ongoing full-time employment with the same employer.
The program boasts a host of long-term internship partners, including Qantas, GHD, Bupa, Telstra, and Aurizon, as well as Commonwealth Bank, NAB, and Westpac.
The CareerTrackers team sources partners needing extra staff for key projects over the winter and summer breaks and matches vacancies with students who have expressed an interest in long term internships with a prospective employer.
CareerTrackers stresses that its internship program is merit based and includes intensive interview and employability skills training. Once in the workplace, the student intern and the employer are supported by CareerTrackers.
The CareerTrackers model holds much promise for universities wanting to enhance the overall student experience.
While resourcing such a model is likely to be challenging, especially given the financial constraints faced by many universities because of the pandemic, costs can be offset by employers agreeing to sponsor internships; especially where arrangements can help to eventually facilitate greater diversity in the workplace.
Building partnerships with companies around paid student internships is not only an excellent way for universities to engage with business and the broader community, but also improves graduate employment outcomes and bolsters student retention rates.
Of course, not all students desire long-term internships during their break periods.
But with many employers facing staff shortages, maybe having an intern or two on deck over the summer break is just what the career doctor ordered.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive of the Australian Institute of Management WA