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Are local employers the key to successful student outcomes?

November 2019

Michelle Craig, Alison Hedley and Suzanne Dickinson consider how local employers can be better connected to students and graduates at the universities of Bradford and York St John

During the AGCAS Annual Conference in September 2018, representatives of JobTeaser, the University of Bradford and York St John University came together to deliver a workshop of the theme of day two: innovating for local impact.

We wanted to put a spotlight on the importance of building local employer relations. Universities are faced with several challenges when supporting students and they're not as unique as you'd think. Each university needs to respond to their local climates, local industries and their increasingly diverse student demographic, socioeconomic background, career readiness, skills-based workforce, social capital of course all impact graduate success.

But there is one fundamental issue that affects most institutions in the UK - social mobility. Social mobility is a driving factor in considering whether local employers really are key to successful student outcomes. The reality is that in the UK the highly mobile graduate is definitely not the norm, as Nicola Dandridge from the Office for Students points out.1 And, Prospects Luminate also highlighted in The reality of graduate migration that in fact, 69% of students are Loyals or Returners, meaning the majority of UK students' study in the same region in which they live or move away to study and return to their home region to work.

This suggests that the local economy is very much linked to the potential success of the student, and therefore relationships with local employers have never been more important.

University of Bradford perspective

1. A diverse student population

Bradford is the youngest city in the UK with 23.7% of its population under 16 compared with 18.8% nationally. The university draws a local student demographic, 75% of its students are from Yorkshire and Humber, 45% from Bradford itself. The 2016/17 DLHE survey showed that over 70% of graduates from the university stayed on to work in Yorkshire and Humber - a greater figure than the national average of 58% staying on to work in their region of study (HECSU 2019). Around 50% go on to work in Leeds and Bradford, 30% in Bradford itself.

Over 50% of students at the university are of Asian origin, 73% of the total student cohort being BAME. This strong contingent of local Asian students has implications on values and aspirations, with a strong influence of 'place' being demonstrated by a desire to stay local to family and communities. Often students have few connections outside of their local communities, making work experience while they study key to preparing them for the workplace.

2. Engaging with the local labour market

Bradford has a strong manufacturing base, accounting for 13% of the local workforce as opposed to 8.3% in Great Britain as a whole. There is an age-related replacement demand for workers in engineering and manufacturing requiring graduate-level skills. Other graduate skill shortage sectors include health, social care and public services. While the city is home to two FTSE 100 companies, more than 70% of our graduates go on to work for SMEs.

SMEs, however, often need support in engaging with the university and its students and graduates. Bradford's Employer and Placement Services Team provides advice on writing job descriptions, and ways to reach them, for example through events, workshops and using their online vacancy platform hosted by JobTeaser. Encouraging employers to create company pages is a great way for SMEs to raise their profile, allowing students and graduates to explore local companies in their sector before applying for opportunities.

The team also facilitate multi-layered relationships, for example, brokering access to RKT resources through the Business Partnerships team, and into faculties for involvement in curriculum delivery or design.

3. University approaches to bridging the gap

The university delivers internships programmes for both students and graduates. These subsidised paid opportunities allow students during vacation, and those struggling to find graduate-level work after graduating, to get workplace experience. They also allow local employers to get experience with introducing a student or graduate into the workplace, which is proving highly successful in initiating relationships in the area.

The university also partners in local initiatives to engage with hard to reach students and graduates, examples being:

  • Opportunity Area Bradford funded delivery of 25 additional summer internships aimed at first-year students from the most deprived wards in Bradford with cornerstone employers.
  • Partners in a DWP funded project, Graduates2Work - a work preparation programme specifically aimed at unemployed graduates in Bradford.
  • Graduate Workforce Bradford - OfS Challenge funding for a three-year project to tackle the underemployment and unemployment of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) graduates in Bradford and the challenges faced by particular sectors of Bradford's labour market in recruitment, skills gaps and diversity, led by the university in partnership with thirteen other key city organisations.
  • Underpinning this is the introduction of a Work Based Learning Framework in 2017, encompassing the three elements of work preparation, work-related learning and workplace learning. Work is underway across the university to embed each element of the framework into the curriculum of every undergraduate programme, preferably at every level of study.

4. The importance of local employers to University of Bradford

A new VC began in post summer 2019 and has reasserted the university's identity as a civic university. The university's contribution to the city of Bradford is essential in terms of economic prosperity and social mobility for its citizens. Given that there is a high demand for graduate level employees in the region, and a graduate population who are reluctant to move away, there is a symbiotic relationship between the university, its students and graduates and the local labour market. While the university will always encourage and support students to look beyond their locality, local employers do indeed play a key role in its strategy to achieving successful outcomes for students.

A common finding is that local employers find it hard to make themselves visible to students and, likewise, students don't have clear visibility of who brands are and what they do

York St John University perspective

York St John is a small university with just short of 7,000 students and a 58% widening participation demographic. 70% of students stay in the region when they graduate, making it essential to work with local employers to create graduate roles vital for student success.

There is a growing need to raise the profile of York St John University students to the local business community as well as showcasing the opportunity within the area to students, especially with those who come to university with little or no social capital to help them create networks. Quite often these students are viewed as disengaged when, in reality, they don't even know they need to be engaged.

With a low unemployment rate, York and the surrounding area is well positioned to look to their local universities for a talent pipeline. The service works to bring the two together and has resulted in four types of session which employer can engage with students:

  • Hello Career - an opportunity to hear from an employer about a graduate scheme or graduate opportunity.
  • Lunchtime Insights - a session for local employers to give an overview of their company, the types of jobs within the company and what they look for when recruiting. The students can then network with employers over lunch.
  • Employer Talkbacks - panel events consisting of 4 to 5 employers all from a specific sector talking about roles and career progression within that sector. Each employer delivers a five-minute presentation with an opportunity for student to ask question followed by networking over pizza and drinks.
  • Make It Local Day - an opportunity for students and local employers, in particular SMEs to network under the guise of CV checking. Each student gets ten minutes with each employer and can interact with as many employers as they wish.

We are also encouraging employers to create company profiles on our job site, powered by JobTeaser: LaunchPad Online, even when they don't have a vacancy. This enables students to get a better idea of the range of local employers, where they are, what they do and potential job opportunities.

Local employer relationships are crucial to York St John University. The approach has been to work as closely as possible, proactively consulting employers to develop initiatives that will work for the students rather than the other way around.

Feedback from the room

40 plus representatives of HE careers and employability in the audience could all relate to the issues raised and contributed with thought-provoking discussions.

  • What is classed as local? Perhaps it crosses the parameters of university and FE college locations, perhaps working together would make it easier for local employers to engage.
  • Can universities do more to drive a more joined-up approach internally to maximise partnerships across the institution to provide simple messaging for students and employers?
  • Is there need for new event ideas, where employers could meet with careers and faculty to learn more about what skills and attributes are gained during study and what students can offer their business?
  • What can be done online to help make information more accessible and inclusive? For example, set up social media groups for local employers or a forum where students can engage?

Communication is at the heart of it

A common finding is that local employers find it hard to make themselves visible to students. Likewise, students don't have clear visibility of who brands are, what they do, and the functions that exist within these organisations that they can aspire to and plan to join. This lack of market knowledge results in students potentially signing up to things that they later realise are irrelevant to them or they don’t engage at all. This is having an impact on footfall at events and other initiatives, where it appears only a small 'engaged' groups of students are taking part.

Innovation in technology means that universities can work with employers to offer more exposure for companies and provide information that is more accessible and inclusive for all students. JobTeaser company pages, for example, can illustrate a company profile, designed to communicate what matters most to this audience such as; values, purpose, culture, teams, environment, jobs and events information in formats that are easier to be consumed like video and images. This insight can not only help students to pre-screen companies to qualify interest but also gain knowledge that can help them to prepare to enter this kind of work. And, can also help careers and employability teams to scale their services without heavily impacting resource.

This session reinforced the important role universities play in this ecosystem, communicating between students and employers - often acting as consultants, advisers and experts to help this delicate transition from education into employment. To future proof careers guidance and prepare the new generation for the future of work employer engagement and careers guidance needs to be innovative, agile and creative.

This workshop was delivered at the AGCAS Annual Conference 2019, which took place in Manchester during the first week of September. You can view and download content from other workshops delivered at the conference.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects.


  1. Nicola Dandridge: Improving graduate employability, Office for Students, 2018.

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