Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, tells the story of a mischievous young lad who plays around with his boss’ magic spells without supervision. But he is clearly out of his depth and ends up wreaking havoc. Indeed, inexperience can be tedious, costly, and in this case, dangerous.

For a long time, bosses have been struggling with new hires. “Something has to be done about the education system, because it is not producing graduates that are ready for work,” former Head of Assurance at Ernst & Young, Mak Keat Meng, said at the recent Applied Learning Conference organised by the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT).

SIT has made it its mission to ensure its graduates transition smoothly from the classroom to the workplace. It has crafted an extended work placement programme central to its curriculum. Students spend up to a year in a company, picking up soft skills and learning how to apply theory to real-world issues.

SIT is the first university in Singapore to offer such a programme. At the Applied Learning Conference, five panelists shared five tips on creating a work-study programme that would make a difference – both for students and employers.

1. Co-create curriculum with companies

Let’s start right at the beginning, with designing student curriculum. “From the time that programmes are conceived, deliberate effort is made to integrate learning with the industry and the community,” said Associate Prof Indriyati Atmosukarto, Deputy Programme Director of SIT’s Telematics (Intelligent Transportation Systems Engineering) degree.

SIT was conscious of the need to make its teaching relevant to the real world, and that could only happen with close collaboration with the industry. “The aim is to really address the gaps that are identified by our industry partners,” added A/Prof Atmosukarto.

The university brought in industry experts to co-teach certain modules with the faculty. “While I can teach about the software engineering process and how agile the methodology is, [the industry expert] teaches the students how it’s specially applied in the automotive industry, so the students get that industry practice knowledge,” A/Prof Atmosukarto shared. This will in turn prepare students for their work attachment, also known as the Integrated Work -Study Programme (IWSP).

Professors also allow students to try their hand at software tools used by companies, so that they gain relevant technical skills before they head into their IWSP. Students also get to go on field visits to industry labs and facilities, where lab sessions are sometimes conducted.

2. Listen to feedback from companies

SIT meets regularly with their partner companies to present updates about the curriculum, and to seek feedback on how best to prepare students for work. Recruiters also get to interact with SIT students to get a sense of the existing gaps in their knowledge and skills, and provide ideas on how the curriculum can address them.

For instance, Mak shared that skills such as matching the values on a company’s balance sheet to its bank statement may seem basic, but it is important for accounting lecturers to spend more time on teaching that. He has also identified forensics and data analytics to be desirable skills in new hires. Those who are familiar with these skills would be able to further support the company.

3. Give students an authentic job search experience

For usual internships, students would apply through a school portal and be assigned to any vacancies. But just sending in an application and waiting for a guaranteed position isn’t a good reflection of an actual job search process. “We want the experience to be authentic,” said Yeo May-Fung, Director of SIT’s Centre for Career Readiness, “which means as close to a real job as possible for the students.”.

Students have to attend networking sessions, apply for positions and go through interviews with the company. “Some of them may not even receive any interviews at all. So every student has a different experience, which is what happens in the real world,” Yeo said.

Recruiters take factors outside of academic performance and interview prowess into consideration as well, just as in actual job applications. Quek Chin Hock, Vice President of public transport operator SBS Transit, who has worked closely with SIT on this, shared how a student’s social media posts affected his company’s hiring decision.

For students who receive no offers, SIT staff would provide support and guide them to reflect on the application process. “Is it the way I answer questions? Is it the content? Is it my knowledge?” asked Yeo. “That is a learning point for the student.”

4. Get students to bring back real-world problems to the classroom

Students’ real-world learning doesn’t end when they return to school. In the course of their work placement, they have to identify a problem to solve for their final-year project. “None of our final-year projects will be an idea that has been thought of by the faculty,” said Associate Prof Foo Yong Lim, Assistant Provost of Applied Learning at SIT. “It has to be within the real- world context.”.

This means their projects can have a significant impact on the industry. Quek shared how an SIT student’s final- year project managed to find an answer to a question he often received, but had no time to conduct an in-depth study on: why not save water by using rainwater instead of tap water to wash train tunnels?

The student dug into the regulations, cost and effectiveness of using rainwater. His investigations revealed that it was too expensive to chemically treat the rainwater, and even after this treatment, it would be too corrosive for the tunnels. “I’m very happy. Now whenever this question comes back to me, I have an SIT student’s research paper [to prove] why we don’t use rainwater,” he said.

5. Encourage students to think about their long-term careers

SIT staff play a large part in putting students in the right frame of mind before they embark on their work placements. This opportunity is “more than an internship”, said Yeo.

“We had to tell them to go with a long-term mindset about their career and the future,” she added. “When they think about the future and long-term, the way that they approach the interviews, the networking or even the IWSP itself will be very different.”

SIT’s Integrated Work Study Programme is an answer to the industry’s cry for more work-ready graduates. The university will continue to work closely with its partner companies to ensure that its teaching remains relevant to the real world and real issues.

Panelists from left: A/Prof Foo Yong Lim, Assistant Provost (Applied Learning), Office of the Deputy President (Academic) & Provost, SIT; Associate Professor Indriyati Atmosukarto, Deputy Programme Director, BEng (Hons) Telematics, SIT; Mr Muhammad Khairulanwar Bin Abdull Razak, Year 4 Student, Bachelor of Engineering in Systems Engineering (ElectroMechanical Systems), SIT; Mr Sean Ooi, Alumni, Bachelor of Accountancy, SIT; Professor Chua Kai Chaing, Deputy President (Academic) and Provost, SIT; Mr Mak Keat Meng, Former Partner, Head of Assurance, Ernst & Young; Mr Quek Chin Hock, Vice-President, DTL P-Way, SBS Transit; Ms Yeo May-Fung, Director, Centre for Career Readiness, SIT