While many education institutions pride themselves on the quality of their Work Integrated Learning (WIL) programs, the reality of this experience for students is often characterised by minimal support in the form of preparation for the day-to-day requirements of the job they are about to undertake.

The quality of a placement program will often play a deciding role for students who are considering their tertiary options, which means that any institution offering a superior placement experience will be able to attract a higher calibre of students.

As facilitators of WIL experiences, secondary, VET and tertiary institutions all share a similar approach in encouraging students to take up these opportunities when available, but fail to prepare them for the basics in terms of how to dress, how to act, and the resources available to them if things go wrong. In areas such as this, it is a worthwhile investment to implement across-the-board preparation, support and advice to give students the best possible opportunities to excel in their roles, and impress their employers.

Secondary students will generally spend several weeks in a work experience program, and it is perhaps due to the sheer volume of students embarking upon this journey at the same time, that schools feel ill-equipped to do more than push the birds from the nest and hope that they can fly. The paradox here, is that in taking a reactive approach and dealing with concerns as they arise, schools can actually create more work for the program managers, and unexpected issues for employers, while the proactive provision of resources may in fact prevent many issues from occurring at all.

Similarly, VET and tertiary students will often be expected to intuit the demands and expectations of a job placement without adequate preparation from their education provider. The stakes are substantially higher in these cases however, given that a placement may last for an entire semester, meaning that when issues do arise, both the student and their employer may be stuck in an unpleasant situation for months at a time without having the necessary tools and support systems in place to deal with their situation.

Another area of consideration for WIL program providers, is that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to work placements, which generally sees students shadowing a mentor, may not always be the most effective way to provide the kinds of experience which employers are looking for. Tailoring placement programs to ensure they provide relevant experience for students, and a focus on the skills employers are looking for, will be of much greater benefit not only for students, but also for the placement providers, and for institutions themselves.

Alternatives to the traditional ‘shadowing’ model, could see students working on a particular problem or project for the duration of their placement, giving them real-world experiences and demonstrable skills which will ultimately see them more competitive when it comes time to apply for coveted graduate roles.

In addition to these factors, it is the resources made available to students which can make all the difference to a positive placement experience, and it is the placements which feature comprehensive inductions, onboarding processes, ongoing supervision and meaningful debriefing sessions which set themselves apart from the pack.

It may not be that all WIL programs need to change, but the question of how to provide the best possible placement opportunities to students is one that should be regularly revisited by any participating institution which is truly invested in nurturing positive relationships with employers, and providing the best possible education outcomes for its students.