Science T-level industry placements: a case study

13 December 2022 Natasha Watkinson

The Sainsbury Laboratory Norwich (TSL) is hosting two students on T-level industry placements from their local further education provider, City College Norwich. The laboratory team told us about their experience to share learning with other science employers thinking about getting involved with T-levels. Some highlights from TSL’s journey so far are below.

What work does the Sainsbury Laboratory do, and what are the team’s day-to-day activities?
Nick Talbot, Executive Director and Group Leader: We're a molecular genetics and genomics laboratory. The Sainsbury Lab as a whole is devoted to the study of plant disease, plant immunity and microbial pathogenesis. Broadly it's a molecular biology laboratory, but it carries out lots of work across many disciplines - all the way from computational biology through to genomics, biochemistry, bioimaging - a whole raft of different approaches, but all around the common aim, which is to try and understand and then cure plant diseases.

What are your current recruitment pipelines and challenges? Do you think T-levels will help build your workforce?
Simon Foster, Laboratory Manager: In the laboratory support teams we have struggled with recruitment. So it was very attractive to me to have this opportunity to get students in that you can actually train up as technicians and give them those skills from the ground up rather than taking somebody on who in many cases was often overqualified but still needed to be taught those skills. It [T-levels] gives us early access to that pool of people that are genuinely interested. And the guys that are here were so keen and so appreciative.

Kim Wood, Human Resources Manager: We are definitely seeing the students coming to us on placement as potential future employees. It allows us to identify potential candidates for roles that we do have coming up soon and it gives us a relationship with the college as well.

What do you hope the organisation will gain from getting involved with T-levels and industry placements?
NT: What I hope we will gain is some enthusiastic young candidates who will come into TSL and who we can train in a whole range of different areas. They can be generalists to begin with. So initially they could work in our media kitchen learning basic microbiology skills. I think that what we will gain through this programme is at least some people who will become part of our staff who might progress and have very long term careers with us and at the same time, I think what the students will gain is going to be huge in terms of the different skills that we can teach them and hopefully they'll become very employable as a consequence because I think there will be lots of other organisations that will want to recruit them too, which is great.

What do industry placements at TSL look like?
SF: I felt that given the breadth of different opportunities we have here, it would be good for the students to move around a little bit. We don't want to treat it in the same way that we would a work experience student who effectively just shadows somebody. So it's finding that balance between moving around into different activities, but also giving them sufficient time in an activity to really get to grips with it and actually to do work. And it actually gives [the teams] the opportunity to do some supervising. It's given the junior member of the Synthetic Biology team some experience in managing somebody, which has been really helpful.

How did you find the process of getting the placements set up? Were there any additional health and safety requirements, for example?
KW: I felt from an HR perspective it wasn't onerous at all. The college was very responsive. They sent over somebody to audit our health and safety before the students started. That was all fine, they were completely happy with that. [The students] sign a document and read our scientific integrity policy, which is our standard onboarding document that we use for all staff. They receive the same induction from an HR perspective as would any other employee and that includes intellectual property as well.

Any final thoughts?
NT: I'm really hopeful that the T-level can be a qualification that people are really proud of and it starts a career in technical services, because it can be such a rewarding career, it can be fantastic and these people are absolutely essential, totally essential, to everything we're trying to do in science. You know, we really need people who want this as a career path. And I just think if TSL can be an exemplar of this and we can help build that sort of community of T-level students and the same with the apprenticeship scheme, then great, we'll do all we can.