IA Interviews ACCI's Jenny Lambert

IA's co-founder Colleen Chen recently interviewed Jenny Lambert (Director, Employment Education and Training) from the Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ACCI) on the topic of "job ready" graduates, Work-Integrated Learning, and internships. 

Lambert touched on encouraging employers to abide by the Fair Work Ombudsman guidelines and expresses a lack of excitement about third party internship providers. She also acknowledges that there is currently no avenue for measuring the effectiveness of Work-Integrated Learning.

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View the full transcript below. 

Colleen Chen: These days students are doing a lot of extracurricular to make themselves stand out in the job market, what is your definition of a “job-ready” or “work-ready” graduate?

Jenny Lambert: The ability to fit into the culture of a workplace is exceptionally important. From an employer’s point of view, that is the hardest bit to mould in a student in contrast to other aspects of training. Job-ready and employability are used interchangeably nowadays but it basically means that students need to have a wide range of soft skills including communication, teamwork skills and the ability to conform to a disciplined workplace.

On top of the soft skills, employers also value attributes such as punctuality, loyalty and flexibility, but they are harder to measure. ACCI and the Business Council of Australia have conducted an Employability Study in 2002, which as been revisited a number of times, and have resulted in a toolkit called Core Skills for Work. From our recent review, not a great deal has changed apart from the unsurprising importance of certain digital skills.

CC: How can young people demonstrate these attributes?

JL: Things like co-curricular activities and being active on school or community committees can be good ways of demonstrating your ability to do things that take into account other people’s points of view. Ultimately when students are going to look for a job, they need to look at the organisation they are applying to and really get to understand what the organisations are seeking.

CC: As students enlist more co-curricular activities and work experience to gain an advantage in the job-seeking process, is there a hierarchy in the way in which employers value certain type of experiences?

JL: I am a bit concerned about spiralling qualifications, although I don’t see any harm in gaining a wide range of experiences. I don’t recall at any point of employers ever saying that having two degrees made any difference to having one degree. There are some organisations such as the Treasury that value Honours but generally most workplaces don’t need Honours, they look for a wide range of things than that.

It is an exceptionally competitive field out there with so many people doing university degrees than ever before. And although the economy needs more people needs more people with a university than there was ever before but it is yet unproven whether the need of the economy will match the dramatic increase in university graduates.

It will be interesting to see how the economy absorbs them.

CC: Do you think the universities have begun to adopt the responsibility in producing “job-ready” graduates in response to the pressure that students are facing?

JL: Yes. I think they are and they should. The failings of universities in the past, was that they were full of self-importance and thought that they knew best. But many people in academic have never worked in business and there is nothing in the system that institutionalises or embeds the views of employers into the standards of higher education other than what the universities themselves do in terms of having advisory boards. It is really important for universities to take responsibility for the employment outcomes of graduates.

The recently launched QILT website is critically important in pushing it further. The website makes it easier for students to compare universities and courses based on their first-year salaries and employment outcomes. QILT is released by the Department of Education and strongly advocated by ACCI.

CC: With the business world is moving so quickly, how will universities to be able to respond effectively to the market demands?

JL: I think it will be a challenge but it is a good thing that they are beginning to respond a bit more to marketplace issues. I think that is what the market is there for. Students, as they become more informed, will work out what universities are doing interesting things. That’s what great Work-Integrated Learning and great work placements come in. Universities that do it well will gain an advantage and competitive edge.

That’s not just a challenge for universities, but also a challenge for industry. I think we both need to step up and we’ve had quite detailed discussions amongst the various stakeholders on how we can improve our collaboration and how we can improve the dialogue.

CC: What are some of the ideas that have come up so far?

JL: Universities Australia, as the peak body for universities, has a specialist position on industry engagement and work placement. We have been working through the issue of growth centre and the key industries that have been identified by government for competitiveness. Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) is born out of the drive to deliver better student outcomes as well as the strategy for universities and businesses to work together.

CC: As a subset of WIL, internships have been coming under increasing scrutiny, with no peak body to oversee the placements of students. How would you address the risk that students could find themselves in vulnerable positions during their internship?

JL: Universities Australia has indicated that there has been a dramatic change in the interest in universities to properly structure their internship programs. Because of the stronger emphasis on Work-Integrated Learning, there will be more oversight than there has been in the past.

It is really important for universities to give students correct advice. The correct advice is that WIL is really useful and students should be encouraged to do WIL as it will make them very attractive in the marketplace. But they also have to say that you need to work in the boundaries of what the universities says is an internship and not encourage the students to go outside and seek to do unpaid work just to get experience. It is important for the universities and the Fair Work Ombudsman to provide that advice. We also strongly advise our members not to take students outside the province of vocational placement.

There are some industries that do it as a matter of practice and those industries need to look at those practices.

CC: As for those third party placement companies that charge students for a placement, what do you say to that?

JL: We haven’t been all that excited about that development although these organisations exist because there is a market need. Universities have to be very careful about their relationships with these companies and they need to put strong boundaries around them. The more the universities do to reach out to businesses and the more that ACCI can encourage employers to assist by opening up the opportunities to students, we can strive towards a point where there won’t be a needed for these intermediaries.

CC: Will there be a system to track the effectiveness of WIL?

JL: There is no definitive way of capturing which universities or courses have WIL but we hope that QILT will be able to cover that over time so that we can assess these programs. 

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