Unlocking talent: how employers can make the most of student placements

Feb. 6, 2024

T Level

As we celebrate #T -Level Thursday, Matthew Harker, CEO and Co-Founder of MyPocketSkill, delves into the power that real, paid opportunities have for unlocking valuable employer-relevant skills.

At MyPocketSkill we like to think we know more than a little about what employers want from students and school leavers. The constant refrain is how those entering the work of work don’t have the right skills, experience or mindset. But there are huge opportunities within 16-18 education to address this.

Our experience comes from working over the past three years with over 120,000 students and employers, including over 10,000 employers who have engaged with us for digital opportunities: social media managers, content creators, website designers and those taking digital T-Level students.

“Real” experience is the key

We are not fans of fake work experience. The bygone days of the work experience student sitting bored by the photocopier is now thankfully less common. Instead, the central value to most employers from taking a student, is being able to make meaningful progress with a genuine business, public or charitable need, rather than relying purely on a sense of community mindedness or creating work for the sake of it. It may sound obvious, but at the heart of any genuine employer encounter should be a sense of value delivered on both sides. Also, responding to live employer requirements is the best possible way for students to develop employment-relevant skills and for employers’ requirements to be fed back into the curriculum.

Remote placements can “level-up” opportunities

We see many students struggling because of the limited size of the local employer pool. This problem is particularly pronounced with students and colleges in rural/coastal locations and of course, it’s also linked to prosperity. We think it makes sense for students to be able to work with real employers but to adopt a mixed model that can also support an online engagement to help broaden opportunities. Even with the post-COVID rebound, we still see many tech teams that work fully or partly remotely, and this is a model which we expect to endure for the next generation of entrants. The online approach can yield a couple of tangible benefits; firstly, better equity of access to high quality employment tasters for those locations/communities where opportunities are scarce. Also, the ability to introduce a more diverse workforce for those employers operating in tech hubs. For instance, through MyPocketSkill we have seen students from rural coastal colleges pair up with London tech companies.

Employment readiness is a teachable skill

The era of students being isolated through COVID and losing out on social interaction have not been kind towards student readiness. There are now real issues with preparedness to join the workforce. Specific areas include interview practice and preparation and CV and cover letter writing.

Whilst students often don’t have a great deal of experience to put on their CV, we have found that by asking the right questions about future interests, related hobbies and interesting areas of their current coursework, we are able to build up a compelling student profile (mini-CV).

Interview readiness, is another area where we have been providing tips and support and we encourage training on key questions and background research on the employer, role and expected tools/capabilities.

Fund employers to start taking students

We find that even modest amounts of money are great motivators for both employers and students.

Our research has found that students are much more valued and motivated when there is a financial contribution for their efforts. Through work secured on our platform young people turn their skills into bankable assets and, in the process, become more financially adept too.

From an employer perspective, whilst you might assume that payment would be a barrier to uptake, we actually see the reverse – employers are more likely to actively engage with paid students to ensure that they deliver benefits and achieve value for money. Paid opportunities also help student engagement and support focus, for example enabling students to stick with a placement rather than having to work another job to support family finances.

This year employers have been able to access dedicated funding to bring in students and these funds are valuable in removing financial barriers to hosting a placement and compensating employers for the investment of time required to set up a placement. But we believe that funding should be more widely communicated, more easily accessible and less restrictive for employers. A centrally administered scheme with a standard fixed amount per placement, tied to the placement being successfully completed would be the simplest possible solution.

Keeping everyone engaged

A complex combination of stakeholders is needed to be brought together to make a placement successful. This includes the employer, provider employer engagement lead and faculty, as well as student and often the influence of a parent/guardian. Keeping all of them onboard is a complex task. Employers firstly need to have an awareness of the pathway (itself an issue with the stubbornly low levels of awareness) and to understand the value they can derive from a placement. They will usually also need a lot of handholding at the initial stages and provider responsiveness is vital here. But the key to this equation is giving students (and those influencing their decisions) the confidence to believe that the qualification is valued and that the placement model will work. To get this right requires a wide range of positive, relatable and specific case studies.

Giving young people the experience of earning and improve fairness of opportunity

Finally, from the latest round of 16-18 qualifications there are still massive gaps in attracting underrepresented segments of the population (e.g. just 9% of digital qualifications were taken by female students). It’s surely time for a wider and more creative range of measures to encourage higher numbers and more diversity into the types of qualifications that employers see as most essential.


Matthew Harker - Co-founder and Co-CEO of MyPocketSkill. Matt is a sector specialist providing expert advice to influential organisations which set youth policy to improve financial capability.

Email: [email protected]