Making the most of work placements abroad

Making the most of work placements abroad

Work placements or traineeships abroad can be one of the most powerful instruments to enhance your students’ employability and career prospects. But do you really know which transversal skills your students have actually improved during their placement abroad? Are your students aware of these new skills? Do students know how to demonstrate this skill gain to employers? Do you rely on evidence or are you just taking skill gain and the better employability prospects for granted?

If you want to be sure that your students can benefit from the exposure to a different cultural setting in their work placements abroad, you might want to consider the following three aspects:

  • What do the data really say?
  • How do you communicate the added value to all involved?
  • Why is it necessary to trigger the reflective capacity in your students?

What the data reveal

According to the 2014 Erasmus Impact Study (EIS) 64% of employers value an international experience with 92% looking for transversal skills.  In the 2015 Higher Education Authority Report, 85.7% of academic staff perceived enhanced employability skills in their mobile students after a period abroad and, in the ESN Survey 2011, more than 97% of students believed they have an advantage in the job market.
All recent studies report lower unemployment figures and a significantly higher number of start-ups for mobile students. Erasmus alumni were offered a job by the company where they did their placement 36% of the time. Evidently, businesses see work placements as an important recruitment mechanism. Yet looking a bit closer at some of the evidence, there is room for improvement.
All of the studies have documented the positive impact of an international experience, but the majority of these studies still rely on subjective perception and anecdotal evidence. The EIS, which also measured the skills gained objectively, shows an almost 30% gap (!) between students’ perception of 80% and their actual gain of 52%. This is in line with the Georgetown Consortium Study, which analysed 61 study-abroad programmes in the USA, also using a pre- and post-measurement. Only one programme showed a significant gain for their students. Not surprisingly, this was the only one that used a comprehensive support scheme that included mentoring.
Furthermore, employers – while generally positive – cannot relate the international experience to any specific employability skills if students are not able to explain them in a way that employers understand.

Using the right language

“This was an awesome experience. It really changed me” will not convince any future employer. They want to see a clear demonstration of those skills they value most. These include, for example, the ability to work collaboratively in a team of people with diverse backgrounds or an openness to different perspectives coupled with curiosity and the willingness to leave one’s comfort zone and show initiative. The role of academics is crucial here in making students understand which employability or transversal skills can be enhanced during work placements abroad, how they know that this has happened, and how they can articulate this skill gain so that employers will see the experience abroad as a real recruitment benefit.
The new Erasmus+ Learning Agreement for Traineeship provides an instrument where such learning outcomes can be documented. It also requires the identification of a company mentor that is not supposed to be the immediate placement supervisor. But it can only work to the students’ advantages if done in an appropriate way.


Research has proven that experiential learning, for example in a work placement abroad, has two important components – the experience itself, and the reflection on this experience. Again, academics play a central role here, especially if the second most important reason for internationalising in the EAIE Barometer study – preparing students for a global world – is to be taken seriously. Academic staff needs to provide preparation and guidance, define learning outcomes and implement related interventions and assessment mechanisms so that these skills can be achieved. This requires:

  • Knowledge about intervention measures like assessment instruments, pre-departure training, reflective journals, post-placement workshops and cultural mentoring, as well as their potential impact;
  • A clear strategy – ideally endorsed institutionally and embedded into the overall institutional and departmental internationalisation efforts;
  • For a much as possible, an integration into regular curricular activities or at least a recognition of the value of such placements for graduate employability;
  • An awareness of the concrete needs of your students and what is actually feasible in the specific institutional context.

Qualified and committed staff is a key success factor for transforming the work placement experience of their students into an employability advantage.

Gabriele Abermann
Salzburg University of Applied Sciences, AustriaGabriele is a recently retired Senior Lecturer for social skills and intercultural communication at the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences in the degree programme Information Technology and Systems Management.

Maria Tabuenca Cuevas
University of Alicante, SpainMaria Tabuenca-Cuevas, Vice Dean for Mobility, University of Alicante, and co-editor of the book Education for Workplace Diversity.