WHEN Shell UK started a scheme 12 years ago to give university students a taste of industry during their summer holidays, it placed 20 young people with companies. This summer, more than 1,500 young people will take part in the Shell Technology Enterprise Programme. The meteoric growth of the STEP project is a measure of how much private-sector companies have become involved in supporting students.
From children at nursery school to mature students, industry and commerce are increasingly playing a part in supporting education. The Labour Government - like its predecessor - has made it clear that it welcomes their involvement alongside state agencies and colleges in training the future workforce.
The Association of Graduate Recruiters, which represents employers from all sectors of business, says the number of companies offering work experience to students is rising rapidly. This was one of the recommendations of the Dearing report two years ago. A survey by the association earlier this year found that students who had had work experience were likely to be offered nearly pound;300 more than the average starting salary, and those who had been sponsored by companies could earn about pound;750 more than their peers.
Business support for students is likely to increase, says the association's chief executive, Roly Cockcroft. "Companies are beginning to realise that when they offer undergraduates placements they get an opportunity to take a much longer look at them in terms of their potential as a future employee," he says.
"And it helps the students, who are looking for some kind of paid employment to stop them getting into too much debt, while at the same time gaining extremely valuable experience of industry and commerce."
Students, usually in their second year of university, apply to join a small or medium-sized company for eight weeks as part of the Shell programme. The emphasis is on finding short-term projects the students can see through and which will help the company. Ideally, the benefits are mutual: the student spends time in a commercial environment, and the company gains from the work accomplished.
"The programme has proved its worth in terms of practical results," says Liz Rhodes, who runs the pound;450,000-a-year scheme. "The students gain practical experience of undertaking a real-life project which they can see having an effect on the company. It's a chance for them to turn some of the theory they have learned at university into practice. And the company gains the benefits of having some of the brightest young people around, who can help them on a short-term project."
According to estimates by businesses involved in the programme in 1996, they gained by an average of pound;4,350 for each placement. Some reported cash benefits of more than pound;20,000 as a result of the students' projects.
Professor Lee Harvey, of the University of Central England in Birmingham, believes work experience will play an increasingly important role in the lives of teenagers as young as 14. He and his colleagues at the university's quality research unit say more flexible links between education and the workplace should be found, including making use of the time many students in higher education spend earning money to supportthemselves.
"Firms need to plunge into making a commitment to provide some kind of work-related project," he says. "There are all sorts of paybacks for them."
A survey by Business Bridge, which links three higher education institutions in Liverpool with small and medium-sized companies, confirms the gains they can make. Since it was launched in 1995, the project has placed nearly 900 students with local firms.
In a survey, 82 per cent of the businesses said the placements had added value to their business, while nearly two-thirds said it had improved productivity.
There were also substantial gains in improving business systems, marketing, sales and new technology.
Alison Thornber, Business Bridge's co-ordinator, believes the message is slowly getting across to companies that they have a lot to gain by taking on students for work experience.
"We've discovered a massive untapped market for students' skills in the local business community," she says. "The stereotype of the scruffy student often puts people in industry off, but that soon disappears once they realise how much they can accomplish in a practical way." * Many are called - CHRISTOPHER JONES
INK IS big money at Clear View packaging in Hornsey, north London, and Christopher Jones, a student at London's University College, was given the job of making better use of it. By the time he had finished his stint at the company last summer, he had saved pound;12,000 a year.
The eight-week project focused on five tonnes of ink stored throughout the factory. Christopher logged all ink stocks and proposed ways of re-using them or disposing of them safely.
Christopher (below), aged 21 and in the final year of a four-year degree course in astrophysics, was named as the most enterprising student in the Shell Technology Enterprise Programme last year, picked from 1,500 students nationwide.
"I wanted to do something practical," he says. "I didn't want to be sitting in an office for eight weeks.
"At first I had no idea how I could help. They took me round and showed me all the ink and said they had to find a way of using it because it cost a lot of money. They wanted me to sort it out."
The problem was, Christopher explains, that a lot of ink was left over after printing jobs but the amounts were too small to use again. He joined forces with an employee at the company and someone from the ink suppliers to decide how to make order out of the chaos.
"The main thing we highlighted was that there was no one taking responsibility for what happened to the ink. We recommended to the company that they created a new position for an ink technician to take charge."
The project involved talking to the company's managers and dealing with the ink suppliers.
The experience was extremely valuable, says Christopher. "It was very useful being able to see a project through from start to finish. I saw all sorts of aspects of the way the company was run which was fascinating, and I learned a lot about report writing and making presentations."
He thinks being an outsider helped him see the company's problems in perspective. "It's a lot easier to come in and work hard on something when you're new to the job. It was great fun."
* EMMA PENTELOW
BY HER early twenties, Emma Pentelow had already had many spare time jobs, including working in a pool hall in Glasgow, in a bar, and helping run a playgroup.
She had also spent a year as an exchange student in the United States and worked in telephone sales there. But she really wanted a career in marketing.
"None of the jobs gave me any experience that would help," says Emma (right), who is completing the final year of a degree course in management and sociology. Then she was offered a place on the Shell STEP programme at a machine tools company in Mirfield in West Yorkshire over the summer. Cutting Tools Supplies wanted to find out whether setting up a telesales team would help business. Emma's first job wasto carry out a feasibility study.
"I had some telesales experience and I went to another company to find out how they did it," she says. "It's a very competitive industry and I had to find an edge. I was given a huge amount of responsibility and I was allowed to spend money."
She set up a three-person telesales unit, chose computer software and interviewed staff. The main advantage was the solid experience to quote at job interviews. Now she is looking forward to starting a fast-track management course with Allied Domecq in September.
Cutting Tools Supplies has seen turnover rise by 300 per cent and gained 80 new clients because of Emma's few weeks there.