The T-level placement is an awkward length and requires new thinking, says Jenny Taylor, who is involved in designing the new programme for IBM

The recent FE Week and Pearson-sponsored great debate in the House of Commons on T-levels – the incoming technical alternatives to A-levels – proved a lively and interesting event. From an employer perspective, my attention inevitably focused on the proposed work experience placement element, which will require students to undertake a placement lasting between 45 and 60 days, covering a minimum of 315 hours.

IBM is participating in T-level development as a leader of one of the digital panels defining the curriculum and we’ve volunteered to take our first T-level students in a pilot running in 2019. We already run successful graduate, intern, apprenticeship and traineeship programmes, so are tackling the challenge from a base of wide experience in this area.

We’ve started to consider the practical considerations to be taken into account for T-level student placements, asking questions such as: Is a bespoke project required? Should they have IBM employee status? Who will manage the programme and/or liaise with the learning provider? What are the productivity and infrastructure costs for IBM? Other concerns include:

  • Safeguarding for under 18s
  • Equipment (laptops/phones)
  • Security
  • Access to our systems
  • Employability readiness of students
  • Pastoral care
  • Student travel

Our working environment is mobile, client-facing and agile. It’s not the traditional five days a week in a fixed office location with fixed equipment. Everyone uses IBM specifically set up laptops and mobiles: desk phones, equipment and permanent desks are a thing of the past. Systems access is required for email and our intranet: the basic tools for doing any job-related task.

We’ve looked at our current programmes to see where we can reuse intellectual capital and here we find some differences. All the work placements we offer (school leaver and undergraduate) are 12 months in duration because in that time, an intern can perform a full-time tangible role, add value to the business and gain significant business, technical and employability skills to take forward in their future careers.

We don’t offer short-term placements for a good reason: it’s hard to get up and running in a company like IBM and then make a tangible contribution in a short space of time. Work shadowing is fine as a taster for a few days, but not for few weeks.

Clearly, we want any T-level students to have a great experience and to assimilate valuable skills during their work placement. So how to achieve this?

To do this properly, we conclude that we need to set up another “programme” for T-levels. It needs a dedicated manager from our early professionals’ team, task managers who can both be on site and take time out from their day jobs to supervise the students, a bespoke induction, provision of IBM equipment to enable the students to operate in our working environment plus a support system of pastoral care.

Work shadowing is fine for a few days, but not for few weeks

Do we need to create a bespoke project for them to study or can we find tangible business-related work for them in what is such a relatively short period of time? We want to help them actively build their skills and knowledge – how do we do this? How are they assessed and how do we contribute to this process? How do we know what level they are now in order to provide a placement which matches their needs? In fact, the list of requirements goes on and on, and that’s before the students set foot in the building.

A recent CIPD report – Reforming technical education: Employers’ views of T-levels discovered that 40 per cent of the more than 2,000 employers questioned were unaware of T-levels prior to being surveyed. Employer participation is crucial to the success of the new programme, so bearing in mind all the preparation activities and investment needed before T-level students arrive on the doorstep, planning definitely needs to start now! This is the only way to provide them all with appropriate high-quality placements to kick start their careers and give them with the skills needed for the jobs of the future.