Hong Kong Polytechnic University's successful work-experience scheme is set to become mandatory for all incoming students from September THE NUMBER OF students taking part in the Preferred Graduate Development Programme at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) is rising at a double-digit clip. While last year's figure of 1,090 is more than double the previous year's figure of 526, it must be kept in mind that Sars resulted in only 12 students being placed outside Hong Kong that year. 'It was not a typical year as it was the summer following Sars,' said Dorinda Fung, director of PolyU's student affairs office. 'If we look back to 2002, however, we experienced a 28 per cent increase. The increase was most obvious in mainland and overseas placements.' Students from 25 departments took part in the scheme. 'I really appreciate the hard work of all my colleagues in bringing about this increase,' Ms Fung said. 'It was especially difficult because we didn't have 'ambassadors' who went out from Hong Kong the previous year to share their experience with prospective participants in the programme. So we had to launch our publicity from scratch.' The programme was launched in 1997, with 126 students placed in 111 organisations. Overseas and mainland placements were added the next year. Six students were placed in Macau for the first time last year. Local placements still account for the bulk of placements. Fully 495 students were placed in 290 local companies or government bureaus last year against 465 at 90 mainland bodies and 124 at 37 overseas bodies. A fifth were placed in the business sector, 18 per cent in manufacturing and 13 per cent in trading. Other sectors included engineering, architectural and technical services; community, social and personal services; and hospitality and tourism services. The Preferred Graduate Development Programme is one of several PolyU initiatives to prepare future graduates to become 'all-rounders' well-equipped to enter the workforce. Personal competence, excellence at work and learning to learn are key elements of the scheme. Students attend training seminars before placements, which usually run for about six weeks during summer. They are also coached in how to find a job after graduation. 'When compared with the general population of students, they do tend to find jobs faster,' Ms Fung said. One indication of the programme's success is the better self-image of students on its completion. They are asked to rate themselves before and after the programme to determine whether they have benefited from it. 'We have found a remarkable improvement in their self-evaluations,' Ms Fung said. 'Before placement, about 28 per cent ranked themselves strong or very strong in communication skills. After placement, that figure rises to 71 per cent. Many of them attribute the improvement to the placements given them.' Similar improvements were also found in self-confidence and general knowledge. The companies that place the students are also upbeat about the scheme. More than 96 per cent gave participants positive ratings for teamwork, ethical behaviour and co-operation with staff. The overall positive rating stood at more than 95 per cent. Of the 15 areas ranked, the only one not to surpass 90 per cent was creativity, with an 88.6 per cent rating. Participating companies are so positive about their charges that nearly two-thirds said they would give them preference if an appropriate opening occurred. Close to a fifth, or 17.5 per cent, would make an outright offer. Another indication of the programme's success is its profile within the recruitment community. From November 2003 to January last year, a qualitative telephone survey of recruiters revealed that 90 per cent were aware of the scheme. 'For those aware of the programme, nearly all of them posted positive comments that it provides students with practical working experience so they can learn more about the job market and can assess realistically if the jobs are suitable to them,' an evaluation of the project said. 'Almost all of the respondents said that the employers they would prefer employing graduates [of the programme] because they already have practical working experiences and are familiar with the flow of work.' Training costs could also be saved. 'They are also more adapted to the working environment,' the report said. 'As such, training costs can be saved. In addition, the companies already know the graduate's strength from their placement performance, and they are recommended by the university so formal employment can be omitted to save costs and time.' The scheme is expected to grow further, with increasing numbers of PolyU students being placed in more companies and government bureaus - in Hong Kong, on the mainland and around the world. From this September, all incoming undergraduates must obtain work placement experience before they graduate. Tina Lau, counselling specialist at PolyU's student affairs office, said: 'This will make us the first university in Hong Kong to implement a mandatory placement programme. 'There will be a certain amount of flexibility, but it must be a structured placement with learning objectives that are agreed on between the department and the student.'