Bristol University launches volunteering award
Organised volunteering and work experience has long been a vital companion to university degree courses. Usually it is left to employers to deduce the potential from a list of extracurricular adventures on a graduate's CV, but now the University of Bristol has launched an award to formalise the achievements of students who devote time to activities outside their courses. Bristol PLuS aims to boost students in an increasingly competitive jobs market by helping them acquire work and life skills alongside academic qualifications.
"Our students are a pretty active bunch but we found that they didn't necessarily appreciate the value of what they did outside the lecture hall," says Jeff Goodman, director of careers and employability at the university. "Employers are much more demanding than they used to be. They used to look for potential and saw it as part of their job to extract the value of an applicant's skills. Now they want students to be able to explain why those skills are relevant to the job."
Students who sign up for the award will be expected to complete 50 hours of work experience or voluntary work, attend four workshops on employability skills, including interview techniques, take part in an intensive skills-related activity and, crucially, write a summary of the skills they have gained. Exceptional efforts will gain an Outstanding Achievement Award. Those who perform best on the sports field can take the Sporting PluS Award which fosters employer-friendly sports accomplishments.
In the pilot scheme, launched last September, candidates clocked up their 50 hours through internships, including stints with a New York publishing house, a Milan law firm and the Guardian, through charity fund-raising or voluntary work in the community.
The experience does not have to be formally organised. "We're not just interested in easily identifiable skills," says Goodman. "For instance, one student took the lead in dealing with a difficult landlord and so demonstrated negotiation skills. We try to make the experience relevant to individual lives. If you're a mature student grappling with family life you're not going to have time to be president of the climbing club, so we'll need to look for life experience closer to home."
Chiara Ventura, 21, a final-year sociology student from Italy, found that she had already completed most of the work-experience requirements before signing up to the pilot scheme. "I'd helped found a web TV service, Blink TV, and worked on the student newspaper. Then to make up the 50 hours I mentored first-year students and worked for the Times Graduate Survey," she says.
She has now become one of the first to earn the Outstanding Achievement Award. "The scheme enabled me to put all my activities in context and to see where it might they might lead me," she says. Rosalind Gilbert, student hire manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the companies to endorse the scheme, thinks the award will prove invaluable to employers trying to differentiate between thousands of high-grade applicants. "We recruit 1,000 graduates a year, so we value work experience and the skills learned from these opportunities, because they allow people to contribute quickly and effectively to both their work and training," she says. "Critically, it helps candidates demonstrate at application stage, how they have the skills that are vital in the positions we offer."
Goodman hopes the scheme will enable active students to fill in any gaps in their experience and encourage their less-proactive peers to take up activities outside their academic remit.