Recently the Learning and Work Institute commissioned a consultation with the Department of Education which revealed there is some confusion over “what effective practice in work placements looks like”
When talking to employers in the PR industry, my experience is that they are keen to offer work experience placements to school aged children, and internships or apprenticeships to school leavers/graduates. Employers know that to secure the future of their industry they need to invest in junior talent and encourage the next generation to get PR experience.
It seems though, that some of them struggle to make that experience meaningful and effective. In an industry where results are famously difficult to measure, it’s important that there is some attempt to control the quality of the students’/graduates’ experience.
I’ve written before about what makes a good PR internship, but how do you measure the effectiveness of that experience?
In the first instance, the employer should think about what they want to achieve by offering work experience placements and what they think the student should get out of the experience. Identifying the student’s needs should be part of the preparation process – and of course no two students are exactly the same.
It’s also important that the student is briefed fully at the start of the process so that they know what is expected of them and how their performance will be measured. You’re setting them up to fail if you don’t give them some boundaries.
Frameworks and measurement models
For school children, it may be their school has a work experience framework for the employer to work from. Often a work experience log is used and that can be a useful way to keep a track of the activities the student has been involved in and what they learned from the experience.
If there’s no framework in place, then it is worth thinking about drawing up a learning contract. It will need to be negotiated by by the employer and the student and should focus on three things; what are they going to learn, how are they going to learn it and how are they going to measure that that particular thing has been learned.
So for example, the first item might be:
To gain an understanding of how teams work in a PR agency.
Work in a team for two weeks and write a blog post on effective team working.
Blog to be edited by line manager and published by x date.
Work experience placements tend to be one or two weeks so there is a limit to how much a student can learn in that time, but a learning contract focuses both them and the employer on what is achievable and sets some goals for the placement.
For longer placements like apprenticeships and internships a slightly different approach to measurement is required – although a learning contract could still form part of that.
At the Taylor Bennett Foundation, we ask our PR trainees to fill in feedback forms every day with their thoughts on every taught session and visit they go on. It’s useful, qualitative insight for us and has helped us shape the content of the programme over the last ten years. It’s also useful for the trainers and visit hosts to use to judge if what they are delivering is achieving the level of understanding they were aiming for. Often, the trainees find writing them quite time consuming and would rather be doing other things, but it’s also a good discipline to do an administrative task and it helps them to reflect on what they’ve learned, the skills they’re improving and the networks they’re building. All useful stuff when it comes to writing their CVs and talking about their experience during job interviews.
We give them appraisals about two thirds of the way through the programme which gives them useful feedback from their mentors and manager on their performance and allows them to identify where they have really improved and what skills and knowledge they need to work on.
We also measure the impact of the programme by asking questions at the start and end of the programme which are focused on levels of knowledge of the industry, levels of confidence and the reach of their personal networks. A similar model could by used by PR employers looking to measure the effectiveness of their internship or apprenticeship programmes.
It’s all very well having a learning contract or feedback process in place but it’s not very useful if the employer doesn’t use it to reflect on what they are delivering during work experience and how they can improve the experience for future students.
Employers must use the results of their impact measurement to build on their work experience offering – and qualitative feedback is just as useful as quantitive measurement in this case.
When a student finishes their work experience an employer invariably wants to be able to say a) they did some good, b) the student is much better prepared to enter work and c) the student has good things to say about that company as an employer. Delivering effective measurement of their work experience helps both the employer and student understand if they have achieved those goals.