While six in ten employers cancelled their scheduled on-site work experience placements for students as a result of Covid-19, FTSE100 company Johnson Matthey was determined to find an alternative way to deliver these one-week traineeships.
So, when Speakers for Schools, a charity with whom Johnson Matthey had previously run school career sessions, made contact about its platform for running virtual work placements, the company was intrigued.
‘I had just been having conversations across our UK sites about the fact that we would have to cancel some of our physical work experiences,’ explains Anna Newsum, community investment and communications officer.
Typically, Johnson Matthey, a leader in sustainable technologies, hosts between 35 and 45 students for work experience each summer across its UK sites, which are arranged on a site-by-site basis. In 2019, 50 completed the programme.
‘Speakers for Schools offers a link between business and state schools across the country. We decided to re-design our week-long placement with all our content and sessions. We thought about the different topics that we wanted to cover and all the activities that we wanted to run. And then we created an advert that Speakers for Schools basically sent out to more than 1,000 state schools that were using its platform.’
Unlike a physical work experience, the online nature of the virtual work placements meant that more students could participate as they were not constrained by locations or travel costs. Students could also apply through the platform; Johnson Matthey accepted 140 applications, but – in the event – 115 joined on the first Monday, aged between 14 and 18.
The applicants were asked three questions. For example, they were asked what, if they had £100,000 to spend on technology or a project, that might be. ‘We made it clear in the advert copy that we were looking for people who were interested in a career in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and were interested in the kind of work we did. But we didn’t really filter and reject applicants based on their responses. We wanted it to be an open process, so even if someone had a really small interest but weren’t sure, we included them,’ explains Newsum.
‘We hadn’t done anything like this before, so we weren’t really sure who might apply but actually, in the end, we had about a 50:50 split between girls and boys, and we noticed a good mix in ethnicity. Our focus, however, was really on the gender split, which happened quite naturally. We didn’t have to reject boys, for example, to make room for more girls.’
The Make the world cleaner and healthier with Johnson Matthey online programme, which ran in July, was hosted on Google Classroom, and – like a school day – ran from 9am to 3pm, with a mid-morning break and an hour for lunch. The core sessions were hosted in the main Johnson Matthey classroom, but there were also multiple sessions in 15 ‘breakout’ classrooms, on topics such as product life analysis, career development and diversity and inclusion and hands-on sessions, involving chemistry, science and decision making.
(There were a few technical and navigational challenges along the way, but nothing fazed the students who often identified solutions to these problems.)
In total, 44 Johnson Matthey employees, from different fields, sectors and function across the business, participated. ‘We had 15 breakout classrooms and they were all designed slightly differently,’ explains Newsum. ‘It was important to split the students so that they could do more hands-on work and talk together in smaller groups and complete tasks as a small team.’
With the age range of the students spanning four years, they were also grouped by age so that nobody was intimidated by an older participant or held back by a younger one. This approach worked: more than eight in ten felt the level of work was right for them.
Johnson Matthey gave careful thought to the delivery of the week’s content, to ensure it was as engaging and varied as possible. Students used interactive diagrams, tables and pictures for many activities, while each expert session from a Johnson Matthey employee was followed by related activities, which they completed either individually or as a group.
Each student was given one of three tasks, such as completing a marketing flyer for an electric vehicle, to complete by the end of the week. They were supported by the content provided and by 15 graduates, who acted as team leaders for each breakout group. ‘It was really hands-on. There were lots of opportunities for the students to talk in small groups and ask questions in the biggest sessions,’ she adds. ‘A lot of students said that it was so great to hear from so many Johnson Matthey people. Normally, if they are on a site following a selective group of people, they don’t have as many interactions.’
Even the chief executive Robert MacLeod got involved. He hosted a ‘meet the chief executive’ session, in which he explained what running a business involved and answered questions about what a typical day might look like. MacLeod was asked about the biggest challenge he had overcome in his career and how he knew if an opportunity was important or not.
Newsom explains the work placement programme matters to Johnson Matthey ‘because it shows what we do and why we’re so important in society. As a business-to-business company, we are under the radar with the general public. So, it was important for us to show young people how science can be applied to have a positive impact in the world, and all the cool areas in which they could become involved.’
She adds: ‘We wanted to show how dynamic a business like Johnson Matthey is, and how exciting a career at a place like ours would be. It was about inspiring young people. We’re so passionate about our business and our employees are so passionate but sometimes it is hard to translate that for the general public and young people.’
Britain is currently facing a shortage in STEM skills, which is estimated to cost business £1.5 billion a year, making opportunities for students to learn about the industry particularly crucial.
‘It is really important for a business like ours, that thrives on these skilled and talented people coming through the pipeline, to engage with young people and show them how exciting a career in science will be,’ says Newsum.
The work experience placements also form part of Johnson Matthey’s new community impact programme, Science and Me, with a goal to improve access to science education to enable a great and healthy world. ‘Part of that strategy is to target people who would normally be excluded from STEM, so women, people from ethnic minorities or disadvantaged social backgrounds,’ she adds.
And the virtual placements will become a permanent feature of Johnson Matthey’s work experience programme. ‘We’ll definitely carry on with physical work experience because it’s important for students to actually see our sites, to see how the machines are running or how the labs are operating,’ explains Newsum.
‘But the beauty of an online model is that we can reach students who would not necessarily be able to come onto our sites, for whatever reason. Both programmes have positives and, in a sense, they balance each other out. The online version is a great supplement.’
Johnson Matthey has spent time filming on its sites during the pandemic. It will share this footage during future online sessions to give participants a sense of its operations, and a feeling for what working onsite might be like.
There currently are no plans to run physical and virtual sessions simultaneously. It is repeating the July 2020 online work experience placements during the February 2021 half-term, but it is looking at tweaking the programme before returning in July 2021.
‘Once we have done the February half-term one, we can look at both events and really consider what works and what doesn’t. We did ask students after the first event what their favourite sessions were. If there are sessions in February that are equally popular or unpopular as the first event, we might look at those,’ says Newsum. It may involve changing the timetable or weaving certain elements from a less popular session into others.
‘We may look to have other senior leaders, not just the chief executive, and perhaps have a whole morning on that session. Then there is an option of running a two-week programme, or even a month-long one, which could focus on a smaller group of students with whom we would work closely over the period,’ she adds. ‘If we did that, then we would be much more selective in how we choose our students.’
There are also plans to create online booklets for each student, where they can list everything that has been learned, and other digital assets, so they have something to take away. It was possible during the first placement to download all related content from Google Classroom, but it was perhaps not the easiest format to manage.
The virtual work experience has also opened Johnson Matthey’s eyes to the potential for future events. In December, for example, it launched a Virtual Skills and Careers Week through Speakers for Schools. Between 4pm and 6pm from Monday 7 to Friday 11 December, Johnson Matthey employees hosted one-hour skills sessions and ‘introduction to careers’ sessions, including technology, engineering and marketing and communications. Colleagues volunteered their time to get involved, in celebration of International Volunteer Day.
‘We chose about 20 different careers to cover and built out a series of skills sessions, so everything from resilience and confidence to problem solving,’ says Newsum. ‘This online model is so flexible, and there is so much we can do with it. We’re also looking at running specific weeks for our employees’ kids, as a kind of thank you to our employees [but also letting the children see what their mum or dad does].’
An ‘Ambassadors’ Network’ is also under consideration, where Johnson Matthey asks those who participated in the work placements to share their experiences to help drum up further interest. But it has also kept in contact with many of the participants.
‘One of the girls who attended asked if we would speak at her eco society, so my colleague did a 45-minute session over Teams, talking about Johnson Matthey, what we do and how that benefits the environment,’ says Newsum. ‘We’re definitely keen to help out the students where we can and to deliver sessions to school societies, and to maintain relations so that – in six months to a year – we can see if they used what they learned and went on to study STEM at a higher level.’