As with all the best business deals, both sides win when a placement opportunity works well.
Will Craddock knows that he made a great choice when he applied to spend a year with Sodexo, a company employing 35,000 people in the UK and Ireland. He even had the chance to play his part when COVID-19 gave the company new challenges at short notice.
He has brought big benefits to the team he’s been working with at the Army’s Colchester Garrison, where the Sodexo Government & Agencies segment operates one of the UK’s largest Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts, keeping everything from plumbing to project management running smoothly.
“We have massively benefitted,” says Gareth Cuthbert, Technical Services Manager responsible for the Hard Services Contract where Will has been working. “They have brought fresh ideas and new ways of looking at things.”
Will was determined from the start to make a placement part of his construction management degree course at ARU – and equally sure of what he wanted to get out of his year away from the university.
“I have got friends who ended up being just the coffee and tea boy,” he says. Will wanted more than that. So he started seriously looking for a placement early with the aim of finding a role where he could earn the chance to do the job for real.
Sodexo put candidates for the project assistant placements through a tough selection process. Will was well prepared for the interview and had used his family, his girlfriend and her family as audiences while he practised his presentation until he knew it by heart.
A good start, but Sodexo was looking for more. “For all the candidates, there were a number of things they didn’t know were being observed. How they mixed and how they talked to us,” says Leighann Wordley, Colchester’s HR Business Partner. “We got a really good idea as to how candidates would interact with our team. We needed to make sure that they fitted with our values.”
Will was delighted to be offered a year-long placement – and grateful for the very warm welcome into the team at Colchester. “My boss gave me the confidence to take on projects on my own, going back occasionally to ask for advice,” he says.
Gareth was also keen that the students played as full a part as possible in the team’s work. “People lost sight that it was a student placement as opposed to being a permanent employee,” he says. That was both a conscious decision by managers and the result of the students themselves being “out there delivering objectives as they had been asked to do”.
For Will, this meant seeing through a project to install fire action notices at sites on the base from start to finish. That included everything from getting the sign wording right to securing access to the base for the contractors. “I was let loose and able to run it myself,” Will says.
Gareth is happy that Will has experienced all sides of working with the team “warts and all”. That means learning professionals work through the problems when things go wrong; this is equally, if not more important, as learning the theory.
As the country went into lockdown, Will’s focus switched. He was seconded to the Sodexo Rapid Testing Centre at Stansted airport as part of the UK’s COVID-19 pandemic response efforts. His strengths showed through as he demonstrated a real willingness to think outside his studies and to apply agile management techniques in a very fast-moving and challenging environment.
Will is returning to ARU’s Chelmsford campus this autumn to complete the third year of his degree course. And he knows his year in industry has given him a real edge. “A lot of things I have chatted about in the lecture hall I have seen put into practice now,” he says.
“They have very definitely set the bar high for our expectations for future applicants,” says Leighann. Sodexo will have two placement students on the team again for the coming year. Leighann is a strong advocate for others to look at taking placement students in their businesses too: “Colleagues can learn from university placements.”
Will is keen to point to the help available at ARU for students. “You can talk to the Placement and Employer Engagement Team (PEET) all the time about placements and CVs to make sure you are prepared,” he says. “Your uni is there to support you and they want you to have a placement just as much as you do.”
He’s already looking ahead to his future beyond university, and the people he worked with will be there to lend a hand if he wants to seek a career with Sodexo. As Leighann says: “We would definitely be in a position to provide a reference and any support he needs to support an application within the business.”