A new report shows that 250,000 British employers gave students time in their companies in 2013. This is 100,000 more than students and universities claim. The gap suggests that the importance of placements and internships in the work place is not fully valued in graduate development.

Students need better guidance on the value of different kinds of work experience, while universities should welcome and record the full range of skills that students can gain from placements. The report reveals that students often discount work experience that is of shorter duration, or unrelated to their studies, as they don’t understand the value it adds to their employability.

Small companies are the engine room of work experience. 60% of placements and internships took place in SMEs and typically lasted less than six months. This form of work experience is more common than the more traditional sandwich courses and long-term placements. Although employers offer short-term work to increase the general employability of students, and as part of their social responsibility, 28% of employers say placements help with recruitment, and this figure is increasing.

Employers require different types of placements for different purposes, but all are important to the businesses they support. Smaller employers tend to offer single, shorter placements, while larger employers have more and longer placements and are more likely to offer internships.

The report “Increasing the offer of work experience: can demand match supply?” from the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), reveals that all work placements are tied to business need and improve student employability. The NCUB calls for a more flexible approach to what counts as a placement. This would prevent valuable work experience being discounted by students, who are opting out of potentially valuable opportunities.

David Docherty, CEO of the NCUB, said:
“Modern students need modern work experience programmes that reflect today’s business environment. It is hugely encouraging that hundreds of thousands of companies are willing to give students work experience, but it is also crucial that students are given the know-how and support to access this large pool of opportunities. And it is vital that universities respond to the willingness of business to support students in different ways of experiencing the world of work.”

Chris Millward, Director of Policy at HEFCE, said:
“This report provides a valuable insight into the scale and characteristics of placements during higher education, taking particular account of the employer perspective. In doing so, it helps to advance our understanding of how placement activity can support graduate employability. The priority now is for universities, students and employers to work together to arrange placements which are right for students and right for employers. And in doing so – as we know from recent HEFCE research – there will be challenges for particular groups of students, including those from ethnic groups and disadvantaged backgrounds, who are seeing differences in their employment outcomes persist across their early careers.”