Award-winning student Elizabeth Palmer talks about her gap year spent with Network Rail and gives her thoughts on how work placements can benefit students and employers.
My friends are generally very supportive, but I have to admit that there were times I detected a question mark in their tone. ‘You are going to spend your gap year working in the rail industry?’
A gap year usually involves travelling the world on your parents’ savings or a stint of ‘voluntourism’ somewhere exotic, so their incredulity was understandable. But to me, my placement made perfect sense.
Why a work placement gap year?
When you leave school after A – levels your next port of call, typically, is higher education, where you go to study the subject that most interests you, in my case geography. However, as the terms pass you become increasingly aware that your studies are supposed to lead to a career after you leave university, but what sort of career might that be?
This is where the working gap year comes in. In this time of high student debt and high graduate numbers, there is sense in maximising your understanding of possible career directions, while at the same time developing skills and experience which will make you more employable.
The Year in Industry (YINI) is the original and, in my view, the best work placement programme, as it involves many of the top employers in the country and provides real commercial projects and mentoring. What is more it pays a sensible salary, which is always good news for an impoverished student.
The recruitment process is itself a learning experience, as you apply and are interviewed just as you would be for a full-time position. It was through this process that I gained a placement in Derby with Network Rail.
During my year with Network Rail, I was given a key role within a project to replace the life-expired Churchill Road footbridge in North London. As lead stakeholder manager, I was involved in identifying and communicating with all parties affected by the works.
I liaised with the local authority and lineside neighbours, playing a key role in arranging the necessary consents for the project to go ahead, such as closure of the highway and coordinating ‘Public Information Events’.
In this sensitive and challenging role, I needed to deal professionally with local opposition to the new bridge by organising a design options presentation for stakeholders, which allowed the design team to make changes based on the feedback they received.
The communication plan I designed reduced local complaints by 80 per cent from the start to the end of the project. As a result of my work, I won the regional award for the best YINI project and the Centrica Award for Environmental Awareness 2015 at the national Future Industry Leaders’ Awards event.
Why employers need to do this?
One thing I became particularly aware of during my placement was the pending shortage of skills in major industries. While this is particularly true of science and engineering, there is a lack of skills generally and, from my perspective, there is an amazing lack of visibility of the range of careers that industries like rail offer.
While other industries, such as the media, management consultancy, financial services or professions such as accountancy and law, have visibility and are seen to be good careers, very few of my peers have a clear view of what working in manufacturing, science or engineering industries is like, or what good careers are available for holders of less vocational degrees.
By offering YINI placements, companies get the chance to look at good quality individuals and provide them with an insight into their particular industry. I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of the rail industry and will certainly consider roles in it, or in similar industries, when I graduate.
Why students need to do this?
The year also allows you to develop good personal skills and discover how you respond to working in a commercial environment.
The YINI involves being given real responsibilities. If I had failed to deliver effective stakeholder communication on my project, then it is quite possible that this important bridge would still not be completed, with all the practical and financial implications associated with that.
On my CV, I can now demonstrate taking responsibility, team-working, project management, time management, presentation skills, communication skills and many others. I have stories and examples to tell at future interviews about how I tackled problems and delivered solutions. Overall, I have a much greater level of confidence in my own ability in the workplace.
All this enables me to distinguish myself from people who either went straight to university or undertook the type of gap year featured in newspaper travel pages. As a result, I can ensure that I get the best possible return from the investment I am making in my degree.
Elizabeth is currently studying geography at the University of Cambridge.