Work-based learning (WBL) is an effective way for students to gain on-the-job knowledge, by applying what they’ve learned in the classroom in a real-world business. Students who complete WBL programs often feel that the process cements their understanding of what they’ve learned.
Many training organisations want to include WBL as part of their courses, but are aware of the major challenges involved in the process, one of which is finding and managing a portfolio of work-based learning employers. This aspect takes a lot of time, resources, and knowledge to get right.
We’ve outlined some common areas that you’ll want to focus on for managing a portfolio of employers for WBL training programs.
For many training organisations, the work needed to find and maintain a portfolio of WBL employers is inconceivable, so they outsource instead. Newman Senior Technical College in Port Macquarie uses an organisation called Mid Coast Connect, who finds employers in their local area who are willing to take students for WBL programs, and builds relationships with them. Often, these service providers are non-for-profit companies who receive funding from the government, so may not require payment. They’re invaluable to training organisations who run WBL programs. The work placement service provider is essentially a broker, and should have a large portfolio of suitable employers for all types of WBL programs, particularly if they’ve been around for a while.
In addition to supplying training organisations with work-based learning employers, the service provider will tackle a number of common problems related to placements, from resolving problems that the employer has with students, investigating poor student attendance, resolving cancellations, and more. At the training organisation itself, the service provider might offer workshops, invite employers to talk to students, and assist with work ready programs to ensure that students are prepared for their work-based training. They also help with matching employers to students—a critical aspect of the process (more on this below).
Safety is an important concern for work placement service providers, who will complete risk assessments before adding an employer to their books. The training organisation should also visit the employer for a tour, to assess whether the workplace is safe for their students.
Here’s a list of work placement service providers by state, or help to that effect:
Your trainers might have some good local contacts who would be suitable hosts for a WBL program. It shouldn’t be difficult to convince local employers to take on students, as it’s a win-win—the student is getting on-the-job training, and the employer is getting a free member of staff who could turn into a valuable employee.
Regular communication is critical for sustaining good relationships with work-based learning employers. For every student that goes on a work placement, apprenticeship, or any other type of WBL program, you’ll need to do the following:
If the student isn’t working out as hoped, this will also need to be discussed and resolved with the employer, which can take a lot of work. The mid-way visit to the employer is a good opportunity to understand how well the student is doing. Some students won’t live up to the employer’s expectations, but with a little diplomacy, can often be convinced to give them another chance.
Some students might have special circumstances that the employer must know upfront, for example an older student who can only work set hours because they have to pick their child up from school, or a student who has a learning disability and needs a little extra time and patience. Assumptions about what the employer can and cannot do for the student may end up damaging your relationship with them.
Bad attendance is an indicator that the student isn’t doing well at the placement, and ideally, you’ll intervene and try to resolve the problem before the employer calls you. This is the kind of initiative that builds your reputation, until eventually, employers will be queuing up to take your students.
“It’s key to have open communication lines with employers, because you want to know about things before they happen.”
—Kylie Ham, Newman Senior Technical College
Sending surveys to employers who have completed WBL programs can yield valuable results, and is a non-confrontational way for them to voice their concerns. The questions can be as simple as asking them what works, what could be improved, and changes they’d like to make. If multiple employers complain about something, there’s a good chance you should fix it.
“Communication and relationships with employers is critical, because it protects the student, the employer, and the reputation of the school.”
—Julie Agnew, Newman Senior Technical College
Employers talk to each other, making word of mouth an essential aspect of finding and keeping a solid portfolio of employers for workplace learning. This also extends to the students’ families, their friends, and the friends of staff at the training organisation.
Newman College have built such a good reputation that some employers in their area have a strong preference for them. They attribute a large part of this to the quality of their work ready program, which they’ve spent years improving.
Some students won’t work out, no matter how much work you or the employer puts in. When this happens, to regain the employer’s confidence, the next few students you send their way should be your best performers.
Matching the student to the employer/position is imperative. You can’t send a random student to a random employer and expect things to work out. A student with great communication skills, etiquette and a love of food might be well-suited for a hospitality employer, but unsuitable as a car mechanic.
To become a savvy matchmaker, you’ll need to do the following:
The more time your trainers spend with a student, the better they’ll get to know them. This includes talking to them about what they enjoy, where their skills lie, the future they see for themselves, and where they’d like to complete their WBL program. Eventually, you’ll have a rigorous profile that contains the student’s personality traits, preferences, and any other information that can assist with their education, and improve your ability to match them to an employer for their work-based learning program.
If the student will take multiple WBL programs, you should chat to every employer about the student’s performance, knowledge, personality traits, and attitude. The employer should also be encouraged to answer open-ended questions on a feedback form, to get as much information about the student as possible. All of this helps to build a comprehensive student profile, to better match them to employers.
As with students, the more you work with an employer, the better you’ll get to know them, and the more honed your matchmaking skills will become. Every employer should have their own profile, which becomes more precise over time. If you’re using a service provider, they might also offer profiles on each employer.
Some employers will want students who have a versatile skill-set, so that they can work across multiple areas of their business.
Trainers spend the most time with students, so should have an idea of which employers they’d be suited to. Once you have solid profiles in place for your students, and it’s time for their work placement, inviting the trainer for a matchmaking session will better the chances of the student being placed with the right employer.
Everyone loves to be appreciated, particularly employers who were unfortunate enough to receive ill-fitting students. Hosting a thank you evening for employers, in which you ply them with tasty nibbles, witty conversation, and a little too much wine, is a great way to show your gratitude. You might also give them a tour of the building, to round out their image of the students’ lives, and remind them of the positive change that your training organisation is driving.
Sending thank you cards to employers is another way to appreciate them, even better when they’re written by the students themselves.
Employers are busy, and don’t want their time to be wasted. A common gripe for employers are students using mobile phones while working, which you’ll need to address with the students during preparation for their WBL program. The employer should also outline their rules for mobile phone usage during the student’s induction (e.g. only on lunch breaks), to solidify the instruction.
Another common problem is the student showing an obvious lack of interest for the program, which should be addressed in order to maintain a good relationship with the employer. Under no circumstances should the student tell the employer that they don’t want to work for them!
When you lose an employer, it won’t necessarily be your fault. Understanding why you lost them will tell you whether there’s a problem that needs to be resolved. Some common reasons for employers leaving are as follows:
Maintaining a portfolio of work-based learning employers is a lot of work, but very much achievable, and offers incredible benefits for your students. Vocational learning is a powerful educational tool, which your students can use to advance their learning, and prepare them for the world of employment.
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