Jenny Craig is Project Lead for the Abingdon & Witney College project ‘Supporting learner progression into employment through the maximisation of technology and professional networking’. The project aims to upskill the education and training workforce and students to develop strong professional networks using LinkedIn. The ultimate goal is to improve students’ line of sight to work and their chances of securing meaningful careers. Materials to support CPD development and use of LinkedIn networks for both staff and students have been made available under our ‘early release of resources’ scheme and can be accessed here.
Where did the idea for a project based on LinkedIn come from?
We had recently started to upskill staff around networking with employers to help shape the curriculum more effectively around strengthening the line of sight to work. We also wanted to make sure that when students graduated from the college they had the key skills employers wanted as opposed to simply focusing on qualifications. One of the benefits of an FE education is being taught by people who have worked in those industries and acquired those skills for themselves. But it also requires them to keep their networks up-to-date and keep their knowledge current. By using LinkedIn—a powerful digital platform—staff have a time-efficient way of building and maintaining those connections together with a strong mandate to persuade students of the value of professional networking.
What are current staff practices for keeping engaged with line of sight to work?
As a college, we ask all of our permanent lecturing staff to spend 2-days per year returning to industry to build and maintain strong networks and target specific employers within those industries. We’re now moving forward with co-creation and co-delivery of curriculum content with lecturers, employers and business experts to underpin this strong line of sight to work ethos. The connections have always been there to a degree but they have often focused more on establishing work experience placements, or perhaps inviting in guest speakers, rather than the development of broader industry-specific skills. We need to make sure our students possess up-to-date core skills as well as those broader skills. Everything is changing because of technology, and some industries—engineering for example—are in rapid transition due to the development of technologies such as 3D printing. Line of sight to work is more important than ever.
Has the action-research element of this project led to any surprises?
Overall, it’s gone according to plan. We knew that it was a lot to do in a short period of time and we knew that the project would have long-term impact; but it was always going to be difficult to assess that by 30th September. Our plan was to have upskilled our staff and, indirectly, our students, to improve the breadth and depth of their connections with industry and potential employers. That’s definitely been happening and will offer greater opportunities for our students to have meaningful careers. There were bumps in the road, but we were clear that this was an action-research project and we would learn much along the way.
In terms of what you’ve learned, if you were starting again would you do anything differently?
If we were rolling out on a larger scale, yes we would. Firstly, regarding timing. The mid-year start was driven by the programme and the funding; however, feedback from staff tells us that we should start at the beginning of the year when students are joining us. This will give them longer to establish networks and do more with them, and will have greater impact during the course of the year. It could be an element of inducting students into an understanding of line of sight to work, a tangible way of getting them to understand that aspect of their journey. Secondly, staff have suggested that it is approached much more as a ‘business as usual’ part of the course rather than an added extra. We will take this learning on board when we embed these practices after the action research project.
How have staff and students responded to the ‘onboarding’ workshops?
Staff and students have made this journey together and that has worked really well. We trained the staff and they trained the students; but, in effect, the staff are learning all the time and learning a great deal from the students. It’s something we need to think about in terms of dissemination and greater impact. It’s a much more interactive way forward.
How do students respond to professional as opposed to social networking?
It’s a huge learning curve! The temptation is for them to treat LinkedIn in the same way as Facebook and Twitter, etc. In a sense, you have to re-educate them. The underlying processes are the same—it’s a familiar digital platform and is, therefore, intuitive—but you need to present a very different persona because it’s your interface with potential employers. It starts with some of the simple things. It starts with the photo. It starts with your name and a box that most people use for their job title. We encourage staff and students to be creative and to use that box to make a statement about themselves and their ambitions. We also encourage them not to use the standard invitation message but to personalise it explaining why they want to connect with someone and what they’re interested in. We know that these are the little things that make a huge difference. It can be tempting to treat LinkedIn like Facebook and establish a myriad of connections instantaneously; but they wouldn’t be relevant and they wouldn’t be meaningful and nothing would come of them. Another issue is appropriate written English and taking the time to check their entries or to get friends or family to proofread for them. Employers that have engaged in the workshops have made this point too, and that hits home.
Have you had an opportunity to assess impact yet?
One thing we’ve learned is that engineering and science students have been the least engaged with the project, possibly because their progression route is straight to university and they’re not yet thinking about careers. It also follows that staff in those areas are not as on board. We’ve realised that we need to engage engineering and science lecturers to realise the benefits of early networking, perhaps through the value of joining specialist LinkedIn Groups.
How has the partnership worked?
We simply couldn’t have done it without the range of partners. I’m just the coordinator of a range of expertise and specialisms that our partners have brought to the project. Without our partners and groups of staff and students from across the colleges getting involved, our outputs would not have been as effective as they are proving to be. I know that staff and students engaging with this project have developed their confidence and skills in using LinkedIn to establish broad and deep professional networks. Ultimately, this will ensure that our students are much more successful in securing meaningful jobs and that our curriculum is continually responding to employer needs.