Wisdom Wednesday: Summer Experience – an Employer’s perspective

Geoff Roberts is a Trustee of The Aire Rivers Trust, for whom he leads on this Aire & Calder Catchment Partnership; he also runs his own boutique consultancy (Hidden Resources) in personal development, leadership and organisational change.

Last summer, Geoff took part in our Summer Experience programme, offering two students the opportunity to gain experience with his company. In this blog, he offers his employer’s perspective on the benefits of taking on Summer Experience students, his recommendations for the project, and tells us about his experience taking part…

Summer Experience: An Employer’s Perspective


I want to tell you about something I had not done before, about which I learned a lot from my first experience and which I am keen to do again – taking on two students for a summer placement.


I lead a project called The Aire and Calder Catchment Partnership, whose key role is engagement of the community in developing priorities for improvement in the rivers and their catchments and subsequently collaborating on delivery of some improvements. (This is not the place to sell the whole message, so if you want to know more about our work please contact me – details at the end). This is a voluntary and emerging partnership, albeit one triggered and partly funded by DEFRA. So emerging in fact that one of the first things we needed to do was to get together a list of stakeholders in our rivers; this was the primary task for two interns we took on as part of the Summer Experience programme.

And thus, with no staff, no offices (I subsequently rented space in the wonderful re:centre), no clear work plan, no facilities and no experience of taking on summer placement studios I happily signed them up and set them to work.

Now our interns would have been the first to admit that their prior knowledge of rivers, catchments and their management was virtually nil, but that was not what we took them on for; frankly, what we needed was someone with basic IT and internet search skills who could trawl through and slowly but surely unearth who our stakeholders were and how we could contact them. All the same, the first thing they did was to produce a small presentation about why the rivers matter  – a great way of helping them find out about the context within which we wanted them to work and something that has future uses for shows, exhibitions etc. – you could call this induction!


Anyway, what did I learn? Well a lot, and as I outline my top 3 I want to put them in to a personal context that might help readers of this piece for the future:


  1. Selection – treat this just as you would any other employee. We were as keen to take on someone with the right attitude and ability to learn quickly (after all even we did not really know what we wanted!) – “recruit for attitude, train for ability”, except that we under-did the ‘training’ part and could possibly have got more out of the exercise had we been more rigorous in what you could call a Training Needs Analysis and then delivering a bit.One thing however that really worked for us was to have the candidates conduct an exercise, around river improvement priorities, that very quickly ‘tested’ their ability to take on information quickly and subsequently to transfer that information into the ‘workplace’ (actually by ‘nobbling’ a couple of passing students and interviewing them). Remember that they are students, not fully formed research assistants/technicians/accountants/whatevers and tailor your expectations appropriately.
  2. ‘Working’ conditions – as a small business owner, I am used to working wherever, whenever with minimal support and no supervision. Indeed this was how I worked when I had a ‘real’ job and how I encouraged my staff to work – after all we are in the age of the internet, 24 hour connectivity etc. However, this makes team working difficult and unless the participants are fundamentally extrovert the chances of communications between team members are seriously reduced.Current reality is that most employers still want their staff to turn up at a fixed place during fixed hours – my approach missed the chance to model this for them and I remain ambivalent about pushing an increasingly outdated working paradigm and preparing them for the current reality.
  3. ‘Job Description’ – I am not a fan of JD as I find them restrictive rather than empowering, indeed my own JD has, for many years, been ‘Do what needs doing’. Now this is OK if you are clear what needs doing and have at least some idea of how to do it; that did not apply to this role. Perhaps I should have given more advance thought and produced a much clearer definition of what I wanted out of the placement – we even ended up with me having to adjust the data they collected because of a lack of clarity on my part about field names in a spreadsheet!

Oh, one final piece of learning – there is a second River Calder (in Lancashire).



Geoff Roberts can be contacted on aireriverstrust@geoffroberts.me and is on Twitter at @AireCalder. If you are interested in finding out more about our Summer Experience programme, whether you are interested in taking part as an employee or an employer, please visit these webpages or contact Summerexperience@bradford.ac.uk.