Budding talent: Why it pays to connect with your local college

David Lewis offers his perspective on the value for a small company of bringing interns on board. 


David Lewis offers his perspective on the value for a small company of bringing interns on board. 

There are countless articles written for students about finding a work placement or holiday internship. Experience of working in a real business will be invaluable to anyone embarking on a new career and small businesses are often a great place to start because it is easy to see how each department works. But what is in it for the business and should you consider joining up with your local college?

Internships are a very established means of getting into the design industry and at our company we have always taken students and graduates in to the agency on work placements. Most people on our team have undertaken work experience at some point in their career and are grateful to the agencies who spent time sharing wisdom and advice so as an agency we are committed to paying it forward.

Students bring a freshness and energy into the team and we have met some incredibly creative and talented people along the way. Many small businesses can really benefit from the enthusiasm of interns keen to climb the first step on the career ladder and the outside perspective of someone who has not been jaded by years in the same industry can be very valuable. Seemingly simple questions can make you think differently about ingrained processes that are not as efficient as they should be.

While we have always been open to accommodating students and don’t like turning people down, around the time of the recession we found that the inflow of requests for experience was becoming almost overwhelming. It was impossible to meet every graduate who got in touch and having a new intern every month would not have been sustainable in our business.

We also felt that it would be better for the industry as a whole if agencies could have more input and feed into students’ development before they got to the point of looking for a job. We don’t expect people to come to us fully formed but it helps if they have an understanding of agency life and the fact that even the most creative design studio, still needs to operate as a commercial business to succeed.

On the face of it, having an extra pair of hands sounds like a great deal for a small business like ours so perhaps we should have been grateful for the competition and high number of applications. But without a proper structure in place and a clear understanding of what is expected on both sides, a placement can divert resources away from day-to-day work and feel like a drain on everyone’s time.

For us, the answer to these worries has been to form a long-term, structured partnership with Edinburgh College. In 2009, with the backing of a group of agencies including ourselves, the tutors on the visual communication and graphic design course were able to introduce an ongoing mentoring programme for their students. They worked hard to get the support of businesses from across Edinburgh and the scheme, now in its sixth year, is well rounded and organised. There is plenty of communication between all involved so the tutors and students know what to expect from the industry and vice versa.

The agencies work with the students on creative projects and give them support and constructive feedback throughout the year. We have set numerous briefs for real life clients, including a one-week project to create buzz for paper specialists GF Smith. The results were impressive, showing how talented and capable the students are, and can be seen on the programme’s Pinterest page.

When we work with the students we aim to prepare them for the realities of agency life and give them a taste for working with clients. As well as nurturing their creative side, they are given the opportunity to present their projects and build the soft skills that are needed to succeed in business. The nature of the programme also means that when they graduate each student has a contact booked filled with people who can help them as they pursue their career.

The scheme has built better relationships between the college and industry and working collaboratively with other agencies has been beneficial too. We have employed several students we worked with on the programme and many of the other agencies have done the same. It encourages students to be proactive in planning their career path and seeing students presenting ideas and working on their projects makes it easy to spot budding talent.

If you think your business could benefit from building links like us, here are a few pointers for getting started and making the best of the experience:

1. Contact your local college or university to find out if there is already a programme in place that your business can become involved with. If it doesn’t exist, speak to course coordinators and other local businesses in your sector to find out if there is a shared appetite to introduce a structured scheme. Colleges with vocational courses are always keen to work with industry so you are likely to be pushing on an open door.

2. Understand that to benefit from partnership working your business will need to dedicate time and resources. It has to be a two-way process and it is better to be realistic at the start rather than finding out later that your staff are stretched and feeling resentful. The better the advice and support you can give to the students, the more you will get back in return. The value of goodwill and word of mouth recommendations, in attracting prospective employees as well as new clients, can’t be underestimated.

3. Get a team of employees on board and encourage them to embrace the mentoring activity. It helps with personal and professional development and our team has found it very rewarding. It’s also important that someone takes responsibility for leading and managing the partnership as well as coordinating communication and activity. Our senior account manager, Gillian, does a great job at our end and without her it would be much more difficult.

4. Investigate schemes like Santander Universities SME Internships programme, which works with UK partner universities to part fund internships in small and medium-sized businesses across the country. Santander donates half of the intern’s salary, removing some of the risk to the small business and the university will support the recruitment process too. 

David Lewis is managing director of digital and design agency LEWIS.

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