Student employability, from the students’ perspective
MSV Incognito’s Business Day, ELSA workshops, SBE’s Maastricht Business Days – the list goes on. Study associations at UM are gearing up in response to a volatile job market with visions of enhancing student employability. But are they actually filling niches left open by the university, wonders Amira Eid. And are their – seemingly – benevolent efforts worth it?
The quick-fix solution to the problem of student employability seems to be networking events. “We need to get students out of their tutorial rooms and let them see what’s out there”, says Jakub Jasiewicz, Vice President for Academic Activities at ELSA Maastricht, the law students’ study association. “We want to create a European network between lawyers and law students, between us and our future employers.” A recruitment dinner could do the trick, he says, but at the same time, there is more to employability: “Students don’t know where to start looking for jobs or how to write a proper CV.” Jasiewicz has made it a priority for his team at ELSA to work towards strengthening students’ other attributes, known as ‘soft skills’.
Former president of MSV Incognito, Valentin Calomme, sees the Department of Data Science and Knowledge Engineering as a special case. With Knowledge Engineering ranked as the top programme of its kind in the Netherlands, students are desirable to employers in any case. “Companies basically throw themselves at us.” So when it comes to enhancing student employability, the focus there, too, is primarily on fostering students’ soft skills. In addition to its annual Business Day, Incognito organises the DKE@Work programme, which enables top students to spend part of their study time working. Simpler endeavours, such as taking formal CV pictures, are also on the table in an effort to keep students from “underselling” themselves on the job market.
The Maastricht Business Days, organised by SBE’s Scope, offer a purer form of networking. Though “not directly” targeted towards enhancing student employability, they enable students to meet potential employers and put into practice the skills they’ve acquired at university. Workshops are organised not by the association itself but by the attending businesses. This model has also been adopted by the student section of the Dutch Institute of Psychologists (NIP), whose Experience Your Future Day will feature a workshop hosted by Career Services, while organised talks will give students insight into the various directions their degree can take them.
But not all study programmes have such enthusiastic study associations. Of the roughly forty student-organised ‘employability activities’ held at UM last year, none were organised by the FASoS associations Orakle or ESA Concordantia.
One overarching event
Given that students can study at other faculties, some associations have limited resources and the university itself holds around 250 employability activities, the question arises as to why the study associations don’t join forces. Why not host one, overarching event?
Calomme’s ever-enthusiastic demeanour is more cautious when it comes to this suggestion. “Well, there’s definitely a will amongst us organisers to at least communicate more”, he says. By contrast, Julian Lupescu, Chief Inspiration Officer at the Maastricht Centre for Entrepreneurship (MC4E), finds the idea “simply fantastic”. “We actively try to achieve that by communicating all our events to different student communities.” The problem? “Unfortunately most of our marketing efforts end up focused on the School of Business and Economics. SBE students just have the ‘entrepreneurial gene’, and are therefore more motivated to work with MC4E.” As such, the Global and Maastricht Entrepreneurship Weeks organised by MC4E tend to be less interdisciplinary than hoped. But LaunchBase, the incubation platform of MC4E, frequently works with study associations on their projects.
Whether interdisciplinary or faculty specific, the popularity of employability activities is indisputable. Study associations and UM staff seem to have different views on why this is so. The study associations are more paternalistic, seeing such activities as a chance to expose sheltered students to the outside world. Some staff members, by contrast, ascribe their popularity to the awareness students already have of what lies beyond the university bubble. Career counsellor Bibiana Linssen of Career Services says she mainly fields questions from students about their soft skills, as they are already aware of what competences they lack. “It’s mostly questions about ‘how I market and sell myself on the job market’.” This is reflected in the workshops run by Career Services, which start by asking students to reflect on the question ‘what have I got to offer?’ As for students’ perception of the job market, Linssen says “I’m actually pleasantly surprised by how prepared some students are to face it.” Guido Vanderbroech of the Alumni Office agrees: “It’s my personal opinion that there’s a growing awareness among students about the importance of building a network while at university.” The Alumni Office, in turn, helps enhance students’ career prospects by giving them the chance to join the more than eighty alumni events happening throughout the year.
All roads lead to Rome
A distinction can be made between pure networking events and events aimed at strengthening students’ soft skills. While it makes sense to host the former at a single faculty, presumably the latter could be covered by one, large-scale, soft-skills fair. Does this mean the sheer abundance of individual events makes a number of them superfluous? Not necessarily. Perhaps some students are more comfortable attending events organised by a familiar study association. Perhaps the more the merrier. “There’s more than one way that leads to Rome and/or a first job after graduation”, says Linssen. Her suggestion? Enhance cooperation and coordination between all parties in order to provide the required interdisciplinary skills training prior to a faculty-specific networking event. This would also do away with the ‘tyranny of choice’; the demotivating effect of having too many options to choose from. After all, it would be ironic if at the end of the day all these efforts and networking events were counterproductive.