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How Placement Year students rose to the pandemic challenge

Alex McNinch, Placement Manager for the School, showcases the highs and lows of establishing the ‘new norm’ for Placement Year students.

There’s not a person in the land who hasn’t experienced the crazy rollercoaster ride of 2020. Phrases like ‘unprecedented’ and the ‘new norm’ are now part of everyday conversation. For our students there has been significant changes to their norm brought about because of the Covid-19 pandemic. These include:

  • moving back home for many
  • online delivery of their modules and exams
  • massive reduction in employment opportunities, particularly in the short term.

For the most part, summer internship opportunities were decimated due to lockdown with relatively few graduate employers switching their focus to virtual internships. Internships tend to be much shorter duration and more of an overview of the business with some training opportunities thrown in rather than any real ‘work’ experience. Conversely, Placement Year opportunities seemed pretty much on track. Sure, there was a recruitment freeze across most sectors for a considerable period of lockdown so numbers are down on last year, but still up on the previous year.


Out of the 75 second year students who have secured a placement for 2020/21, only three are not going ahead as things stand and one of those was a student’s choice because it was an international placement and international travel looks far from stable. The vast majority of organisations have made plans to delay the start date and start remotely with induction and training plans being initiated online. There’s strong indications both within graduate recruitment and in the labour market more generally that this could be the ‘new norm’ with less travel, less formal face-to-face training courses and much more flexibility in the workplace.

Employers who had already been hosting our third year placement students when Covid-19 struck were very quick to react and many of our students were working at home well before the government instigated the official lockdown on 23 March. To give you some context, most of our placement students work in the UK but we also had ten students working abroad for their Placement Year and they too were forced to return home which meant a very stressful scramble for flights before borders were closed for some of them. The University agreed early on in the crisis that there was a ‘no detriment’ policy and that students did not have to complete the usual 40 weeks work experience to pass their placement year. However the vast majority carried on with their placements working remotely, even if in another country.

Resilience leading to experience

Whilst 2020 has arguably been a chaotic experience for many, it has been particularly turbulent for students doing placements abroad, whom prior to this year have had virtually no formal work experience. That said, it has also granted fantastic and unprecedented opportunities for those students. Many started their roles last summer so had six months+ under their belt with the organisation and had embedded in their teams and understood the culture of their employer. Fast forward to now, they’re helping run global businesses from their own homes and being involved in creating crisis management strategies. How many 21 year olds can say that? This will be incredibly strong material for their final year dissertations and future professional lives. For all of us homeworkers, this whole episode has been a huge lesson in patience, motivation, time management and not forgetting digital skills. Skills which should never been underestimated. A few of our students who were undertaking placements abroad as we entered the new decade have given their perspective of Placement Year in the most trying of years.

Quickly adapting to the ‘new norm’

As an institution, Durham and its staff had to react quickly as well. Face-to-face appointments and group workshops were not going to be possible for the foreseeable future. Luckily the University had all the technology we needed. We now just had to use it. Using Microsoft Teams and Zoom to run LinkedIn workshops and the like became routine practise. Facebook Lives were also a great tool to connect with the cohort of students spread around the country and the globe. This worked incredibly well as a surgery type forum to provide updates on what was happening within the University, Business School and labour market while also to answering any questions and concerns the students had. A highlight was hosting a pre-placement briefing using Zoom to create a support network for the outgoing placement students. We had 25 students on the call all due to start placements imminently with various employers around the UK.

To summarise, 2020 has been a challenge but one that has brought many opportunities and allowed us and our students to develop skills that we may not have even known we needed. The landscape, the jobs, the way we interact, have all changed and this skillset can only be a positive as we start to think about what the ‘new normal’ might look like in 2021 and it certainly seems that Placement Year is set to be even more beneficial for our students than ever before.

See a previous article in IMPACT magazine with first-hand experiences of students on Placement Years.

Find out more about Placement Years.