Cracking the employability code with applied learning


Every business school wants to produce highly employable graduates, could applied learning be the key?

Professor Conor Moss is Dean of the College of Business, Technology and Engineering at Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University (SHU). He was appointed Professor of Work-Based Learning at SHU in August 2021 in recognition of his contribution to employability and work-based learning. He has supported the institution’s award-winning employability, enterprise and employer engagement service. Conor himself has led the development of new business-facing services at two institutions, including the rapid growth of Degree Apprenticeships, CPD and employer-led provision at SHU.

He explains how putting applied learning at the heart of an institution has such a positive effect on employability: 

Many universities and business schools employ a range of employability strategies. However, they are often singularly offered by the Careers Service with little curriculum integration.

At Sheffield Hallam’s Sheffield Business School, the employability model is at the heart of the agenda, supporting social mobility, inclusivity and raising aspirations of young people now and for their future. This has resulted in better alignment with students’ opportunities and the development of skills employers are looking for. Sheffield Hallam’s employability success is clear from its high graduate employment level, with 96% of recent graduates in work or further study.

Employability no longer lives as a centralised or co-curricular offering from a distant Careers Service. It’s about applying knowledge in the real world as part of a diverse and dynamic curriculum experience.

Here’s how Hallam has made employability central to the curriculum:

Step 1: Understanding our place

The first consideration for the institution was to clearly understand our ‘place’ and the employability challenges faced by our diverse student population.

Sheffield Business School is located in South Yorkshire, England, with an economy largely made up of the public sector and SMEs; an economy still recovering from the decline of heavy industries. Sheffield Hallam University is a large university educating more students from underrepresented backgrounds than any other UK university for five consecutive years. Consequently, our provision and development of our students need to be cognisant of their background and the economy in which many of them will work.

At Sheffield Hallam, we believe that employability, delivered through a highly applied curriculum, is a core element in supporting highly skilled employment. Translated to Sheffield Business School, we strive to develop our students’ capabilities to be prepared for, take advantage of, and adapt to, the dynamic world of work. We aspire for them to be work-ready and to make a positive difference in business and broader society.

Step 2: Developing a clear strategic intent with senior leader commitment

The next step was to develop a clear strategic imperative. The University’s ‘Transforming Lives’ mission and world-leading applied institution aspirations created the strategic intent for developing an ambitious institutional employability strategy. This was supplemented by its support of city regeneration, economic localism, a highly skilled employment agenda, educational attainment, and providing a graduate talent pipeline to support civic ambitions.

Sheffield Business School’s heritage of working closely with employers and as a pioneer of sandwich placements helped to inform and shape the broader university strategy.

However, strategic vision alone is insufficient. There needs to be strong leadership engagement if radical change is to be achieved.

Institutional leadership, led by the Vice Chancellor, resulted in strong championing of the ‘Transforming Lives’ mission, which acted as the catalyst for the development of a transformed and ambitious employability strategy to ensure a step change in performance.

Step 3: Scoping out the radical approach

Bob Gilworth’s definition of employability as “the lifelong capability to make well-informed, realistic plans for the future and to be ready, willing and able to execute these in a changing world” emphasises that student success relies not only on skills.

For Sheffield Business School, employability was well understood; however, application across programmes was mixed. We required a holistic view of developing employability skills through curriculum. It, therefore, encompassed the full educational spectrum of values, from imparting knowledge and understanding to developing skills and attributes.

The employability strategy aimed to:

  • Better prepare Hallam students for the world of work
  • Enhance and embed employer engagement
  • Ensure a range of meaningful and scaffolded employability offers through an integrated and applied curriculum

These three areas formed the foundation for this radical institutional change to translate Hallam’s employability strategy and ambition into the classroom.

Step 4:  Building networks

Hallam’s requirement for applied authentic and genuine work experience with employers reflects the outcomes of Cranmer’s study: that employability skills can’t be effectively delivered in the classroom alone.

Rather, increased employment-based education and experience, along with employer involvement, has a positive impact on immediate graduate prospects in the labour market.

This required the University and Business School to ‘network as an institution’ – to raise its public profile such that employers actively sought out opportunities to engage with our students and the development of their employability. We needed to massively scale up the number of work experiences and applied project opportunities to support our ambition.

To facilitate deep engagement with employers and support the applied learning agenda, Employer Advisory Boards (EABs) were established in all departments across the University in collaboration with students, staff and employers. The EABs are comprised of industry experts (SMEs and Large employers), senior academics and student reps.

EABs drive industry-relevant enhancements and opportunities for real-world projects in the curriculum, helping us revolutionise our approach to the curriculum and improve graduate outcomes. We’ve led the way institutionally in developing highly engaged and effective EABs and mandating all final-year students to work on an employer-led applied project.

Step 5: Developing an institutional Highly Skilled Employment Framework through Employer-led work experience

An integrated and multi-dimensional Highly Skilled Employability (HSE) framework was developed as the platform to drive change. The framework helped us define work experience opportunities for students at all levels. It helps to scaffold professional development across each level of study while meeting the needs of students and employers.

Students’ work experience may take several forms:

  • Work Integrated Learning: A formal work placement whereby students gain applied work experience in a specific organisation or industry.
  • Enterprise Residency: Students work in groups or individually to complete a negotiated and agreed self-created work experience brief related to enterprise or entrepreneurship initiatives.
  • Applied Projects: Students work in groups or individually to complete briefs set out by and working directly with employers.
  • Scholarly Research or Innovation: Students explore a specific research topic, project, or consultancy within a relevant field to make an original contribution to their discipline or related industry requirements.
  • Sandwich Work Placement Year: The ‘gold standard’ for all our students to achieve, placement years result in improved attainment outcomes, better graduate outcomes and earnings levels, and improved confidence.
  • Semester Abroad: Students will be exposed to different economic, social, and cultural contexts, learning more about globalisation issues and contrasting their existing knowledge with new learning in the setting of the exchange partner.

To help students find work experience opportunities, Sheffield Business School hosts numerous themed discipline events throughout the year, e.g. Finance, Accounting and Banking Recruitment & Employability Extravaganza (FREE) event, which invites 300 students to take part in a structured day of talks and networking with 40 employers. This supports students in developing their employability skills to ensure they have the best chance possible of securing a placement in their chosen field.

Step 6: Implementing the new framework

The flexibility of the work experience categories enabled faculty to align this experience to a programme’s curriculum, the needs of students and their likely employment pathways. This can improve students’ graduate employment prospects, as indicated by our successful Graduate Outcomes data (top 10 in the UK for Graduate Outcomes).

A partnership approach involving academic, professional services teams and student-facing services across the institution was adopted within academic departments to interpret how they would integrate the HSE framework into their modules.

Each Department established a ‘check and challenge’ approach in reviewing the course design, module descriptors and learning outcomes.

The Pro-Vice-Chancellor required all Heads of Departments to present on how HSE was being owned and implemented in their departments. This demonstrated strong senior-level leadership and engagement with this initiative at a strategic level.

Step 7: Incorporating the student voice

As an institution, we wanted to take our students with us on the employability journey. We explained why we wanted to make these changes to student representatives, Student Voice Leaders, Student Community Leaders and Student Union teams. This was complimented through bespoke workshops, online surveys and peer-to-peer workings to gather the most inclusive feedback.

The student voice and student-focused research were embedded into the fabric of the framework. We also turned to graduate interns, paid placement students and Hallam Community Leaders to help shape and inform this change. This was and continues to be, complemented with insights from our industry partners and professional experts.

Step 8: Integrating employability into the curriculum

Hallam provided faculty with a framework for integrating employability into the curriculum. This empowered course teams to bring employability to the forefront of their modules.

Sheffield Business School brought these initiatives into the classroom via employer-led consultancy projects, in which final-year students work with industry partners on live project briefs. These partners range from FTSE 100 companies to local SME businesses and start-ups, including HSBC, Asda, GXO and M&S, and SME businesses and start-ups, including Alder Bar in Kelham Island. Over a period of 12 weeks, Sheffield Business School student teams work on projects that analyse real issues faced by organisations.

One student group created a chocolate ‘Pinata’ for M&S, which not only met the client brief but will soon be released in stores. Employability skills were developed, and networking opportunities provided support for students to secure employment. Following the presentation day in March, one student secured her dream role at HSBC, an achievement attributed in part to the skills gained during the module.

Alternatively, undergraduate students may take part in the Enterprise Residency programme, a module delivered in partnership with Hallam’s Enterprise Team, which provides students with opportunities to create, innovate and develop self-initiated commercial or social business ventures or projects.

Much work is still to come as we seek to ‘crack the employability code’. However, we are confident and determined that Hallam students will continue to benefit hugely from our colleagues’ immense efforts to deliver the employability strategy in partnership with employers and the broader community.