Industry Placements & Links

Industry placements and strong relationships with employers are crucial in T Levels. Providers have built capacity to support extended placements by using the Capacity and Delivery Fund (CDF), and are now delivering industry placements for their T Level students. Working with employers in the design and delivery of the curriculum strengthens the links between the learning that happens in the classroom and on placement with an employer. 

Case study: Science industry placements

The Sainsbury Laboratory Norwich (TSL) is hosting two students on their T-level industry placements from their local further education provider, City College Norwich. The laboratory team told us about their experience to share learning with other science employers thinking about getting involved with T-levels. Some highlights from TSL’s journey so far are below. 

What work does the Sainsbury Laboratory do, and what are the team’s day-to-day activities? 
Nick Talbot, Executive Director and Group Leader: We're a molecular genetics and genomics laboratory. The Sainsbury Lab as a whole is devoted to the study of plant disease, plant immunity and microbial pathogenesis. Broadly it's a molecular biology laboratory, but it carries out lots of work across many disciplines - all the way from computational biology through to genomics, biochemistry, bioimaging - a whole raft of different approaches, but all around the common aim, which is to try and understand and then cure plant diseases. 

On a day-to-day level there will be quite a lot of people working in laboratories and they are identifying new genes associated with disease and trying to understand their function. They'll be studying the whole basis of how the plant immune system works. So that work will involve cloning, gene editing, genetic manipulation of plant species to try and test whether these particular determinants are involved in plant immunity, and also manipulating the pathogens and bacteria and fungi that cause disease. 

If you walk around the laboratory you’ll see some people at the computer terminals. They're looking at structures and doing data analysis. There will be other people working at high-end microscopes, or some working with mass spectrometers measuring different protein amounts within infected plant material. 

Simon Foster, Laboratory Manager: The laboratory support teams essentially provide lots of services to all the research groups to make their research life easier. So we prepare media glassware, and process any washing up that comes back through – including what we call “kill”, which is basically sterilising any biological organisms that might be contaminating glassware. So it's quite a wide-ranging role because we do offer a lot of support to the research groups. I also look after another couple of support groups which are Synthetic Biology and Tissue Culture and Transformation. Again, they offer direct support to the research groups but in a more specialist way. Synthetic Biology produce bespoke cloning constructs (artificially-made segments of DNA) which the research groups can then use, and in Tissue Culture and Transformation they produce transgenic plants for the researchers.  

What are your current recruitment pipelines and challenges? Do you think T-levels will help build your workforce? 
NT: In recent years lots of research technician posts have been funded only through grants on a fixed-term basis, and as a consequence those jobs tended to go to new university graduates, or sometimes people with school qualifications, but they would go to those types of individuals who would then be in those roles maybe only for three or four years and then move into other areas of employment. So as a consequence that whole generation of technicians that had really run most of those big institutions were beginning to retire and there is no real way of replacing them. There was a big, big gap. I still think there is. So I'm quite an enthusiast for T-level training because there's a whole generation that's sort of missing now across UK R&D. 

SF: In the laboratory support teams we have found a couple of people that have stayed with us for a long time. We've recruited into that team since then, but we have struggled with the recruitment. We struggle in finding people firstly who want to do technician roles, but also that are actually trained in technician roles because until now there wasn't really a direct route for technicians to learn how to be technicians and to pick up those skills from school and through into university. It's just very much an academic route in terms of science, and we wanted to support the people that are interested in science that maybe don't want to go down that route. So it was very attractive to me to have this opportunity to get students in that you can actually train up as technicians and give them those skills from the ground up rather than taking somebody on who in many cases was overqualified but still needed to be taught those skills. It [T-levels] gives us early access to that pool of people that are genuinely interested. And the guys that are here were so keen and so appreciative.  

Kim Wood, Human Resources Manager: We are very definitely seeing the students coming to us on placement as potential future employees. Obviously it depends on their personal circumstances and the two students that we've got differ slightly. I think one is interested in going to university afterwards whereas the other one very much wants to go out and get a job and that's why he's jumped at this chance to do his placement with us. I think he's keen enough that I would actually talk to him about opportunities even immediately beyond the placement and I would be quite happy to look into options in terms of some part-time or holiday work. Getting somebody in and keeping them enthused would be good.  

In terms of us identifying people for future roles it's really important. It allows us to identify potential candidates for roles that we do have coming up soon and it gives us a relationship with the college as well.  

What do you hope the organisation will gain from getting involved with T-levels and industry placements? 
NT: What I hope we will gain is some enthusiastic young candidates who will come into TSL and who we can train in a whole range of different areas. They can be generalists to begin with. So initially they could work in our media kitchen learning basic microbiology skills. They could then work in bioimaging, learning some basic items around microscopy, the same in terms of mass spectrometry and by having a series of sort of rotations through the laboratory, they're going to pick up lots and lots of skills. Now what we're going to gain from that is some people who are very, very well qualified across a whole broad range of areas and that's quite rare now. Hopefully that would enable them ultimately to take on more senior technician type roles and progress much further to become laboratory superintendents, senior technicians, because they'll have that broad range of skills from the very start of their career and then begin to specialise afterwards. I think that what we will gain through this programme is at least some people who will become part of our staff who might progress and have very long term careers with us and at the same time, I think what the students will gain is going to be huge in terms of the different skills that we can teach them and hopefully they'll become very employable as a consequence because I think there will be lots of other organisations that will want to recruit them too, which is great. 

What do industry placements at TSL look like? 
KW: They've moved around a little bit, but they're essentially within the laboratory support team and the Synthetic Biology team at the moment. 

SF: I felt that given the breadth of different opportunities we have here, it would be good for the students to move around a little bit. So their first week here they spent time together in one team. But then we split them up and we assigned them each to a different team and they spent blocks of time in different teams. We don't want to treat it in the same way that we would a work experience student who effectively just shadows somebody. So it's finding that balance between moving around different activities, but also giving them sufficient time in an activity to really get to grips with it and actually to do work. Our daily work varies so much - we have very few jobs that are just routine day after day so we'd like to give them that variability. And they did express at the beginning of their interview and placement what their interests were, so if they had an interest in the specific team we’ll support that as much as we can as well as giving them the variation.  

KW: The teams have really taken them under their wing and just accepted them as they would any other team member. It’s been really good to see actually. 

SF: And it actually gives [the teams] the opportunity to do some supervising. The Synthetic Biology team is a very small team; there's only normally two people in it. But it's given the junior member of that team some experience in managing somebody, which has been really helpful. 

How did you find the process of getting the placements set up? Were there any additional health and safety requirements, for example? 
KW: I felt from an HR perspective it wasn't onerous at all which was nice. The college was very responsive. And I've spoken to the tutor, Robin, and she's been brilliant and she's the one teaching them. 

NT: All of our work has to be authorised by the Animal and Plant Health Agency of DEFRA. So we're under strict containment for many of the diseases that we work on. And also there are rules around manipulation of genetically modified organisms, so there's quite a lot of containment and regulation associated with the work that we do here. 

KW: The college sent over somebody to audit our health and safety before the students started. That was all fine, they were completely happy with that. They said because of the type of work that we do and the way that the Institute is set up, all of our health and safety procedures are very nailed down anyway, so there wasn't really any concerns in that at all. Anybody here is covered under our general insurance anyway. 

[The students] sign a document and read our scientific integrity policy, which is our standard onboarding document that we use for all staff, and have the opportunity to ask any questions on that. So they receive the same induction from an HR perspective as would any other employee and that includes intellectual property as well. 

What preparation would you like the students to have before they come to you on placement? 
NT: It would be good for them to have some digital skills so that you don't have to pick things up from such a low base, which we sometimes have to do with people. Otherwise, T-levels have emphasised English, maths, and digital skills along with science. I guess it's those areas that we would hope would be good. But at the same time, I think I'm quite realistic about this, that they're going to come with very few skills. Sort of the whole idea is they are keen and they come with a really positive and enthusiastic attitude. Really, that's the most important thing. 

SF: Having seen the course specifications, I was keen to take somebody in the second year. I think most of the stuff that they cover in the first year sets them up very well for doing a placement in their second year. I think a good grounding in chemical safety is one thing. Over and above that, I don't think there's anything we need that they can't pick up while they're here. The other aspects that I know that they cover on their course, some molecular cloning work and things like that, I think gives them a good grounding.  

Any final thoughts? 
KW: I'm also trying to promote the scheme around the (Norwich Research) Park - we've got several other institutes so I'm trying to push so that we perhaps get a bigger cohort on site. We've got a good resource here for Norwich and for the City College … it would be really good if we could move that forward and get a bit of a reputation for having T-level placements on site. 

NT: I'm really hopeful that the T-level can be a qualification that people are really proud of and that it starts a career in technical services, because it can be such a rewarding career, it can be fantastic and these people are absolutely essential, totally essential, to everything we're trying to do in science. You know, we really need people who see this as a career path. And I just think if TSL can be an exemplar of this and we can help build that sort of community of T-level students, and the same with the apprenticeship scheme, then great, we'll do all we can. 

Industry placements: employer perspectives


Employer perspectives:

Employers share their experiences of what students on industry placements have brought to their businesses.

Industry placements: student perspectives


Student perspectives:

Students discuss how their placements have supported their learning.

Scroll through the case studies below to see examples of industry placements in practice, featuring:

  • An example of an Oldham College student on an extended placement with a small business; Co-Op News;
  • In Lancashire, Eric Wright Construction and Preston's College working closely to develop their industry placement offering;
  • Ultimate Products hosting students from Oldham College on industry placements in several departments across the business.

1st year: Implementing Industry Placements

Provider perspectives:

Providers talk about how they have worked to increase the numbers of partners available for T-level industry placements.

The importance of Industry Links

Building industry links not only helps students get meaningful placements, it develops pedagogy and brings increased relevance to the curriculum of what is going on in industry