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


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


Gender Inequality

Guest Blog post from Kathryn Foot

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ll have noticed that the gender pay gap has been in the spotlight.  Gender Pay Gap Reporting is now mandatory for firms employing more than 250 people, the deadline has now passed and the results were not good.  Just over 10,000 companies submitted their findings ahead of the deadline and of those it was revealed that 78% pay men more than women, 14% pay women more and 8% said they had no gender pay gap, based on the median measure.  The median pay gap among all companies that have reported is 9.7%.  Some companied faired worse than others, but I am not here to name and shame, I want to start a discussion and look at solutions.

Now I know that these figures are not based on like-for-like jobs, and I know there has been much debate around this.  I am aware that the reason for the disparity is because there are more men in higher paid roles.  For example, the airlines that reported their findings stated it was because they had more male pilots, and of course pilots are paid more than cabin crew or those in office-based roles (where there are more females).  But ask yourself, is that OK? There are reasons for this.  Why is the industry NOT attracting more females?  How can this be addressed?

Let’s look at this in more detail, according to the equality charity Chwarae Teg, in Wales just 6% of CEOs in Wales’ top 100 firms are female and a survey by Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and XpertHR in 2017 revealed that women are more likely to fill junior management roles than men, (66% versus 34% of men), while 74% of director-level roles are occupied by men. However, even when women are in director-level positions they earn less on average, with men taking home £175,673, while women take home £141,529.   

Women are not getting to the top level jobs and earning those higher salaries (and when they do, there is clearly a gap).  Yet we all know that on average there are more females accessing higher education every year, and they are performing better than men. 



Women who go to university earn on average a higher wage than those women that don’t. So, what is happening after they leave education and enter employment?

Full Fact reveals some startling figures and is worth investigating.  It is interesting to see that the pay gap increases after 30 and for higher earners.  It is fair to assume that those higher earners will potentially be some of our graduates.

What impact have these findings had on female students?  I think it is important that we find out.  A recent survey by the career app Debut, proposes employers with the biggest pay gaps are seen as less attractive employers to graduates. And out of the 500 surveyed (granted it is a small pool) it found that a third of female graduates won’t apply to companies with high gender pay gaps and of those that do, over half are uncomfortable with their decision – some of those companies are the big grad recruiters that you work with. 

In my humble opinion the gender pay gap exists for many reasons, attitudes and perceptions stemmed from upbringing, poor career advice from a young age, access to education, social mobility to name but a few.  Which is why it is such a difficult subject to tackle, but it is being tackled and progress is being made, although not quick enough. 

Your students will look to you for advice, support and maybe inspiration, so give them that.  Let the women that you support know that they can achieve anything they want.

Working with students is a real privilege, I can say that having worked with them for over 14 years. You have the opportunity to shape the next generation of leaders. And you are so much more than a placement manager, or a careers adviser. You are a mentor and a role model, you are able to provide real opportunities that will push them, upskill them, shape them and set them on their future path.

As a careers educator I felt I had a responsibility to ensure that I prepared my students fully for their working life and to inspire them so they can truly be the best they can be.  We are with them for a short period compared to their time spent in school or work, but we can make a huge impact.

So what can we do?

·         When talking to graduate recruiters, start asking them about their equality and diversity policies, look at their stats – how many senior managers are male, how many are female?  What are they doing about the gap? Do they have family friendly policies such as shared parental leave?  We need to make sure we are representing students fairly and giving them the best chance.  We are all in this together and we have influence so let’s use it

·         Run events (face-to-face or online) focused around women in leadership and work with a varied pool of successful mums, CEOs, engineers, pilots, entrepreneurs so they have actual role models to look up to – do a little experiment, in your next one-to-ones, start asking your students who their female role models are – it’s a question many struggle to answer – yet women need powerful ‘sheroes’ to inspire success.

·         With that I mind, feature case studies of successful alumni from different backgrounds

·         Hold Q and As with on-campus recruiters that address these issues and can help alleviate fears

These are just a few ideas that I am sure many of you are already doing.  I would love to hear more so feel free to comment.

We are all in this together, males and females and we can really start to make a difference.


Kathryn Foot is a freelance career coach and trainer and a Learning Development Partner for the Welsh Equality Charity for Chwarae Teg. She is also a Non-Executive Director for the miFuture Foundation, a social enterprise on mission to help 100,000 young people in Wales prosper. Previously she was a trustee for Placenet, was Operations Director for Careercake and worked as a careers educator at Cardiff University for 14 years.