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Built In, Not Bolt On.

Embedding Employability In The Curriculum, by Jemma Penny

It’s mid-September. Two weeks ago, we bade farewell to thirty-two MA Film and Television students as they submitted their audio-visual dissertations. Two weeks from now, we’ll welcome our next cohort. It’s a busy time (isn’t it always?) getting ready for the new intake while still processing outgoing students’ work, but it’s also the perfect period in which to hone skills workshops for the new term and think about how we can further embed employability initiatives into the curriculum. For my colleagues and I, employability is central to our work, and we endeavour to build it in to every module our students take.

Working with postgraduates, most of whom are with us for eleven months (unless they’re part-time) is challenging, interesting, and fun. Even after several cycles in this job, I still find it’s different every year and I love the opportunity to refresh and enhance what we do. I’m very lucky, as I work as part of a small team (me, an academic, and a technician) and we are all focussed on a particular sector, but I firmly believe that embedding employability into the curriculum is also achievable on a larger scale and that building it in, rather than bolting it on, is essential for developing students’ confidence in taking their next steps after university.

Arguably the biggest draw of the MA is the Placement and Training module (no pressure on me then!), and many of our employability workshops unsurprisingly hinge around this, but here are some of the ways in which we try to achieve fully built-in employability across the programme.

Contextualise skills

With many employability initiatives, it can be a challenge to incorporate and convey the importance of basic skills and information without sounding patronising.

This is where it becomes crucial to show students how soft skills (such as communication) are vital not just in the workplace, but for their degree too.

The email workshop I run as part of the Placement module, for example, also links to the Research Skills and Dissertation modules: how will they approach contributors for their documentary films? What would an appropriate subject line be? Will organising folders in their inboxes aid workflow going forward? If students can see how a process or skill will be of benefit in multiple contexts, particularly future ones for which they will be paid, it’s more likely to strike a chord and be something they naturally carry through to employment.

Respond to industry

I visit placement companies around once a year and we always invite employers to share their insights on what students are good at, and/or where they feel there may be knowledge and skills gaps. We then think about how we can build this in for the next year. For our Development and Production Processes module, for example, students were always encouraged to look at live commissioning briefs and guidelines, but they now also produce a short taster tape as part of the assessment, as this is common industry practice. In Research Skills they are not just taught how to reference and compile a bibliography for academic essays, but how to use search engines effectively and be brave enough to pick up the phone and talk to someone.

When it comes to the placement itself, our model is extremely flexible. We operate an ‘up to 12 weeks’ maximum length (at 4 days per week) but this can be split between more than one hosting organisation and can take place at any time within a 6-month period - our timetable is specifically designed to allow this flexibility. This allows us to work with a greater range of companies, some of whom can only host for shorter periods or at certain times anyway, and also enables students to gain a wider range of experiences. Additionally, if a programme or project is commissioned and an additional placement opportunity therefore arises unexpectedly, there is a student available to interview.

Encourage students to feed back

Every summer I make an effort to ask students what they’ve felt has been useful over the year, and if anything can be improved. Last month, I unwittingly posed this question to one student the day after she’d had an interview and had been asked to alphabetise content on an Excel spreadsheet. ‘Can you do something on the basics of Excel next year?’, she asked. Absolutely – one lecture will now have a section dedicated to spreadsheet use, with a particular focus on creating a budget (again, contextualising skills for the TV industry) and storing data clearly.

Positive feedback is also extremely useful, even if it’s something as small as ‘I never knew I should refer to a job description when writing a cover letter’. This reinforces that the basics are important, and that while it’s important not to patronise, we should also never assume knowledge.

Engage with alumni

I firmly believe that no matter how many times a colleague or I say something – be it about punctuality or the length of a showreel– it’s never as effective as when it comes ‘from the horse’s mouth’. Last autumn we had our first ever Alumni Speed Networking event, where six alumni who now all work locally (in the majority of cases at the company where they did their placements) returned to campus to talk about their experiences. I’d originally envisaged this as a way to encourage students consider different placement options, but it actually grew beyond this as the alumni shared tips about time management, how they’d coped with editing their film projects, and gave advice about being resilient with applications and rejections.

Does it work?

Well, they say the proof is in the pudding, and year on year (this being no exception) we have several students who go straight into employment at one of their placement companies after completing the MA. Three of our Class of 2018 have already agreed to talk at the next Alumni Speed Networking event in November, and I’ve heard from two others who have secured roles in other sectors, who said they wouldn’t have had the confidence to apply without the initial workshops on CVs and cover letters.

I’m immensely proud of all our students and alumni, and every year it’s a pleasure to see them grow in confidence and move into employment. For many, however, especially those who transition straight to MA from undergraduate study, the year marks the first time they have ever produced a CV or attended an interview. University careers services do a fantastic job, however not all students have the confidence to seek out this support - employability should be built in at all levels of education, so that if nothing else, students leave with a sense of how to approach their job search effectively and conduct themselves in a workplace environment.

Jemma Penny

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Jemma is the Placement Coordinator for the MA in Film and Television: Research and Production at the University of Birmingham. Her favourite part of the job is going for meetings at production companies and finding one (or more) MA alumni sitting in the room, ready to support a new placement student.

She tweets as @JemSaunders1 and @FTV_Birmingham, and occasionally blogs about employability (among other things) at www.jemmasaunders.co.uk