Inside HE: impact of Covid-19 on students and work placements

Apr 27, 2021 | Work experience/internships

Emma Clarkson, Employability and Placement Officer at Huddersfield Business School, reflects on the past year and how Covid-19 has impacted students and work placements.

If someone had told me at New Year 2020 that by March the UK would be in lockdown due to a global pandemic, and that I and many others would be working remotely for the next year, I’d have accused them of hitting the Christmas eggnog a bit too hard. Yet here we are.

I co-lead and manage an award-winning employability and placement team, responsible for supporting undergraduates and postgraduates into work placements. We place students in a wide variety of sectors including: marketing, events, finance, tourism, logistics and hospitality.

I’ve worked in placements for over six years, but the last year has definitely been the strangest and most challenging for myself, colleagues, students and placement employers.


Impact on placements

Covid-19 and the initial lockdown hit the UK when our students were mid-way through their placements – 14% of our students had their placements terminated, 20% of whom had to return to the UK/their home country from overseas, while 22% were furloughed and many more suddenly working from home.

The student recruitment market ground to a halt for a few months. Many employers told us that they were no longer in a position to advertise placements, pulled placements already offered to students, pushed back start dates and/or shortened placement lengths.

It was a shock to everyone, but it was the students I felt for the most as they are still building resilience, life-skills and work experience. For many students, the placement year is a pivotal opportunity to gain essential skills that graduate recruiters are looking for, and an edge over their peers in an ever-more competitive graduate labour market.


Student perceptions of placements

Since last summer, I have been an active member of the University of Huddersfield’s ‘Barriers to Placement’ project, which aims to understand and address the barriers that students, employers and university staff perceive towards placements. Below are student comments that illustrate the perceived impacts of Covid-19 on placements:

“It has made it very hard, in January 2020 I had a full 15 months of placements booked, all had been cancelled by April 2020.”

“It made it a lot better for me, I was commuting for two hours a day and it meant I was working from home, which saved me a lot of money on travel, and was infinitely more convenient.”

“Not many placements available. Competitiveness. Remote working may not allow getting trained properly.”

“Working from home will surely negatively impact people’s motivation for applying/starting a placement.”

“Many people are uncertain about their placements taking place, which I think will impact their decision not to take a placement. I am lucky that my placement went ahead, but a lot of my friends could not find placements because of covid and some were cancelled.”

It is concerning that while the placement recruitment market looks to be starting to stabilise and recover from the initial impact of Covid-19, students don’t seem to be getting this message.

Huddersfield Business School offers the placement element of most of its courses as an option rather than an obligation. While this puts the students in control, it also means that much of the placement application process depends on individual motivation. Throw in a bombshell, such as the perceived negative impact of a pandemic on the placement recruitment market, and students may decide that there is no point in applying at all.


What can employers do?

While we’re operating in an online world and much campus-based learning has been suspended, it is harder to get employers in front of our students. University placement and careers staff are trying to embrace new virtual ways of working as much as possible, but we need your help. Creating bite-size videos about placements, how students can apply and what the ideal candidate looks like will help us promote your opportunities. And online careers fairs are a great way to engage with our students in the current climate.


What can higher education placement and careers staff do?

We must do everything in our power to ensure that students are aware that after a short ‘commercial break’, placements are bouncing back and employers are recruiting once again. Consider contacting students directly with this message; ask your university’s marketing teams to spread the word or request placement employers to confirm it, perhaps in the form of bite-size videos!


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