Work experience is a vital aspect of an engineering degree, but increasing numbers of unpaid and underpaid placements put some students at a disadvantage.
My recollection of engineering vacation work more than a decade ago is of a generally pleasant, six-week stint that I undertook during summer holidays. It paid slightly better than my part-time bakery job, and it had the added benefit of ticking off the ‘practical experience’ requirement of my degree.
But, according to new research led by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), the landscape for engineering work placements has changed in recent years. Not only are they becoming increasingly unpaid or underpaid, factors such as social capital, financial status and personal circumstances are increasingly leaving some undergraduates at a disadvantage.
Led by UTS Associate Professor Natalie Lloyd, the mixed-methods study examined student engineers’ narratives of their placement experiences, drawing on insights from staff and students from four Australian universities.
“Through our research we found that certainly the landscape has changed,” Lloyd told create.
“Paid placements are harder to secure, and some students, such as women in non-traditional areas and culturally and linguistically diverse students, are facing additional challenges.”
While a spectrum of factors was found to contribute to a student’s experience, there were some commonalities to positive work placements.
“The elements that work well are where there’s a strong relationship with the industry partner and the institution, and where there’s a shared understanding of expectations around the placement,” Lloyd said.
“There’s also a process of planning or structuring around the placement, including mentorship, on boarding and resourcing … And if the workplace culture itself is positive – that is, if it’s not discriminatory, if it’s supportive, creative and flexible – then that speaks to a good experience for students, as well as for employees.”
On the other hand, the impact of poor-quality placements or inability to access a placement ranged from negative effects on student wellbeing, to an increased likelihood of course-switching or failing to graduate.
“This has long-term implications in regards to the pipeline of students joining the engineering profession,” Lloyd said.
“Whilst it was outside the scope of our research, you can imagine it has financial implications over a lifetime as well.”
To address these issues, Lloyd and her team have provided a series of recommendations to improve engineering placements. These include addressing the frequency of unpaid, underpaid and paid-for placements, and considering other disciplinary models for placements, such as those used in health and education.
“In engineering, there’s an underlying expectation that students seek and find their own placement, and it’s a stressful, competitive application process further complicated by an uneven playing field disadvantaging some students, and impacting on their wellbeing,” Lloyd said.
“It may be time to reconsider the means by which engineering placements are sourced or innovate to provide quality alternatives.”
The outcomes of the study are currently being disseminated to engineering educators and industry partners, as well as through teaching and learning networks across Australia and internationally. Lloyd hopes this process will bring in further industry, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary perspectives.
“It’s important that there’s engagement around this topic and discussion, both at an institution level and at an industry level, including professional bodies,” she said.
“Just as the delivery of quality, equitable placement programs needs good partnerships between industries, students and institutions, equally, changes moving forward need those three parties working together, too.”
For those interested in contributing to the next stage of the study or participating in a workshop to create more equitable and impactful work placements, contact Associate Professor Natalie Lloyd.
The full report can be accessed here.