Promoting Work-Readiness Through Applied Learning

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Tuesday, November 14, 2023
By Conor Moss
Photo by iStock/FatCamera
At Sheffield Business School, students at every level and in every program gain real-world experience that prepares them for the workplace.
  • Students at Sheffield Business School must participate in short-term placements, work on their own businesses, and complete consultancy projects.
  • The school collaborates closely with SMEs because they dominate the U.K. labor market and because they offer students challenges that cut across functional disciplines.
  • The school strengthens connections with the business community by maintaining active advisory boards, including three aligned with specialized departments.

What does it mean when a business school prioritizes the “employability” of its graduates? To me, it means the school gives students the skills they’ll need throughout their lifetimes as they change jobs, change careers, and adapt to workplaces that have been fundamentally transformed by technology.

At Sheffield Business School at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K., we have committed to an ambitious program of applied education that prepares our graduates for the world of work. Applied education provides students with immersive experiences and real-world contexts, replacing passive knowledge absorption with active application. It challenges the conventions of classroom confines and theoretical learning by taking a practical, hands-on approach to learning.

While the Sheffield Business School has a long history of focusing on applied education, we are in the middle of a relaunch that embeds work experience and industry engagement in every discipline. Whether students are undergrads or postgrads, and whether they’re majoring in management, accountancy, or marketing, they will find that applied learning is integrated at every level of the curriculum.

As we have learned through our career development events, most employers aren’t recruiting students with specific degrees. They’re looking for graduates who are highly adaptable problem solvers. Therefore, to ensure the employability of our students, we must teach them to solve problems, collaborate, adapt, and be creative. We believe we can do that through an applied curriculum where they learn to use theoretical principles in real-world situations.

The Work Requirement

Our goal with the relaunch was to ensure that we took a common approach to applied learning without being overly prescriptive. Therefore, we created a broad framework that must be adopted by every program.

A key element of our strategy is to require students at every level to gain some type of real-world experience, whether they are participating in short work placements, working on their own businesses, or completing real-life consultancy projects. These experiences, which are embedded into our program modules, are progressive in nature, with evolving expectations, challenges, and connection to the workplace. By the time they graduate, students are ready to work.

Typically, students might participate in a business challenge worth 20 credits in their first year. They would follow that in their second year with a short placement that lasts for 120 hours and is worth 20 credits. In their final year, all Sheffield Business students participate in an applied consultancy project worth 40 credits. This project allows them to bring together many of the skills they have acquired during the program.

We collaborate closely with our Directorate of Business, Enterprise, Skills, and Employability to find projects and work opportunities for students with local, regional, and national employers. While we partner with companies of all types and sizes, we pay particular attention to small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). These businesses dominate the labor market in the U.K. in general and Sheffield in particular. SMEs present students with interesting challenges that can cut across functional areas such as marketing, human resources, and sales. This means students can get varied experience in one work placement or project.

As we have learned through our career development events, most employers aren’t recruiting students with specific degrees. They’re looking for graduates who are highly adaptable problem solvers.

We also allow students to use their current part-time jobs as their work placements or to draw from their existing networks to find posts. However, in those cases, the school conducts due diligence to ensure the safety and suitability of the employers.

A key part of every work experience is assessment, which is conducted in partnership with employers and can take many forms. For instance, students might put together portfolios of their work and accompanying reports. Those who have completed applied projects might make presentations and compile reports that use appropriate theoretical research to underpin recommended practical actions. The goal is for them to show they know how to apply the knowledge they’ve gained in class.

The Student Consultancy

Our consultancy module, which was recently revamped to include only real-life projects, offers our students a particular type of work experience. About 250 of the students who participate in this module are in the final year of the undergraduate finance program.

The consultancies are organized by our faculty and staff, who develop the opportunities by working through our networks of SMEs, large businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Some projects also are supplied by the executives-in-residence who work with our finance, accounting, and business systems (FABS) department. Through consultancies, students gain valuable experience and develop transferrable skills that will differentiate them when they enter the competitive job market.

Working in small groups over 12-week periods, students act as advisors and agents of change who help business leaders devise strategic and tactical solutions to current problems. At the end of the module, students present their reports at a showcase event that also acts as a networking opportunity. At a recent event, 40 business partners attended the event and discussed career opportunities with the students.

The consultancy projects have directly led to students receiving additional offers. For instance, one student worked on a project for HSBC and had the opportunity to discuss her vision with the HSBC team at the networking event. She was invited to apply for a graduate position with the bank and is now part of its graduate program.

For many students, a consultancy represents the first time they have worked on a group project or done a presentation in a professional setting. To manage expectations, we fully brief our industry partners about student abilities before the projects start. However, even if students only identify a small piece of information that relates to innovation or market development, this is a positive outcome for the client, who pays nothing for the consulting work. And because students gain useful experience and desirable job skills, they benefit equally from participating in the consultancies.

The International Angle

Working in their consultancy modules, students have solved many business challenges, such as how to launch new products at Marks & Spencer and how to redesign the branding for Costa Coffee. A more detailed example comes from a consultancy project completed by students in the International Business program, where associate professor Alexandra Anderson directs the applied project module that runs across all the courses.

Each company that supplies a project for International Business students provides four project briefs. Student teams might be asked to explore four different international markets, four sectors within one international market, or a combination of both. The organizational challenge often revolves around growing market share, improving marketing efforts, or reducing costs.

In addition to working with companies on work placements and consultancy projects, we ensure the employability of our students by seeking deeper connections with the business world.

A team of students recently researched the possibilities in new international markets for Leighton Vans, an SME involved in van conversions, sales, and parts. To get a better idea of the project’s objectives, students toured the company site and listened to a presentation by its marketing director, which gave them insights into the company’s culture, strategy, and operations.

As a result of student research, Leighton Vans decided to expand into one of the countries the students had evaluated. It also invested in promotional materials, translated some content, and followed up on client leads the student team had identified.

The Board Connection

In addition to working with companies on work placements and consultancy projects, we ensure the employability of our students by seeking deeper connections with the business world. We’ve significantly increased our engagement with employers by inviting them as guest speakers, hosting them at careers events, and setting up industry visits. We’ve also created entrepreneur-in-residence and executive-in-residence programs that enable these professionals to share their knowledge and expertise with students and graduates.

But one of the most important ways we’ve connected with the business community is by developing four different advisory boards. We have a School Advisory Board consisting of 12 people who meet twice a year to discuss the business school’s overall strategic direction. Additionally, we have three Employer Advisory Boards (EABs) aligned with three specific departments: FABS, management, and service sector management.

Each specialized board has between 20 and 40 members and meets two to three times a year. Board members provide input on curricular changes, suggest speakers for future events, provide strategic direction for any specialized steering groups, mentor students, offer work placement opportunities, and provide real-life challenges for consultancy projects. Members come from organizations that range from startups to blue-chip companies such as HSBC and Marks & Spencer to industry bodies such as the Bank of England. They are drawn from all sectors, including retail, manufacturing, local government, and human resources.

The activities of the board can have a direct impact on the content of our courses. For example, at a recent meeting of the Service Sector Management EAB, participants noted that students need to understand how company culture impacts the workplace and how emotional intelligence can influence their careers. Ultimately, the board coordinator worked with one of the school’s executives-in-residence to find ways to embed cultural and emotional intelligence tools into the employability modules.

In addition, faculty can work with our advisory boards and executives-in-residence to further some of their own projects. For instance, Nikita-Marie Bridgeman, a lecturer in business operations and systems, is working with these groups to find more women in senior leadership positions who can join the new Women in Business mentorship scheme. Currently, participants come from a wide variety of fields, including consulting, accounting, fintech, and supply chain and logistics. We are keen to expand this program even further with the help of our industry partners.

A Future-Proof Skill

As a result of our continued outreach efforts, we have developed a significant number of new business contacts, which has enabled us to secure more internships, find more consultancy projects, bring in more guest speakers, conduct more case study research, and launch new knowledge exchange partnerships. Today, we embed employer perspectives in everything we do.

By creating these connections between our school and the business world, our goal is to provide benefits to our students, our local industries, and our communities. Because of our focus on applied learning and student employability, our students—many of whom come from more disadvantaged backgrounds—have excellent postgraduation outcomes.

I truly believe that learning is the only future-proof skill that will enable us to keep pace with the speed of technological change. When business schools ensure that students develop marketable skills through applied learning projects, we are helping to build a resilient workforce that’s trained to adapt to whatever the future holds.

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Conor Moss
Professor and Dean, Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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