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Boosting employability skills for OU students in Wales

One of my earliest memories of The Open University (OU) was as a child in the 1980s, watching a smiling bearded chap on BBC2 swinging a full bucket of water over his head to demonstrate the irresistible principles of gravity.

Things have come a long way since then, and after nearly fifteen years working in programmes to tackle poverty in the south Wales valleys, I joined the OU in Wales. The work my colleagues and I do is part of the growing package of support the University offers students.

Many people in Wales who’ve had a tough time at school or college stay as far away as possible from formal learning. I know. I was one of them. I failed all my GCSEs at the first attempt. And those who take the brave plunge back in often find their way to the OU as distance learners. Let’s face it, learning from home is often the only option for many of our students, who, a bit like the bucket, are themselves caught up by day-to-day gravitational forces totally outside of their control.

I’m a work experience advisor and mentor. I help students figure out the barriers and gravity wells that often feel like seemingly unbreakable forces in their lives. Study often comes behind real life pressures like family, work, finances and a person’s own health and well-being. So, preparing yourself for what you’ll actually do after you graduate is often seen as a luxury - yes, something very important, but perhaps maybe for next week when things calm down a bit.

For many years, improving employability skills, and how students with these barriers prepare themselves for work after graduating, has been high on the policy agenda in Wales. Alongside the Welsh Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), the OU in Wales is a part of this effort, successfully delivering several student-centred initiatives such as GO-Wales, the work experience student mentoring programme.

Funded through the European Social Fund, GO-Wales is a great example of all nine universities in Wales working together for Welsh students. Through this initiative, my job is to open doors to the kind of employers that students often have difficulty connecting with. I help them improve their employability skills, increase confidence and develop a strong personal strategy. When they graduate, the aim is that they do not become what government designates as ‘NEET’ -  not in education, employment or training.

Together with a dedicated Student Services team based in Cardiff and our own Careers and Employability advisors, the OU in Wales also arranges internships for our students, supported by the Santander Group. This is quite different to the GO-Wales programme, and establishes paid internships with employers across Wales, relevant to the student’s career goals. As well as creating employed roles, these placements can also give our learners valuable contacts in their industry.

So even though that warm-blanket memory of the OU of my childhood is just that, the OU in Wales of today is helping to create new memories for our students and their families. It’s giving them new skills and experiences that will help them during their studies, and in their careers after they graduate. Now how’s that for defying the forces of gravity?

Darren Jones

Employability skills coordinator, The Open University in Wales

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