Work Experience: What should it do?

Guest Blog: Mike Zatyka wonders about its purpose.

Following the Labour Party’s announcement that they would make the provision of work experience placements for 14-16 year olds compulsory for secondary schools, Enabling Enterprise Education Associate Mike Zatyka asks what work experience should really do for our young people.

Enabling Enterprise’s mission is to equip young people with the skills, aspirations and experiences they need to succeed in life.

With youth unemployment approaching one million and businesses facing a widening mismatch between the skills of their work force and the skills they need for strong growth, the focus on how we prepare our young people for work has never been stronger.  What role does the classic two-week work experience placement have to play in a young person’s journey?

At Enabling Enterprise we are acutely aware of the gap between the classroom and the workplace and in principle at least, work experience sounds like a great way of addressing this gap, even if for a short time. What do young people get out of it?  Well, even the best placement will probably not directly lead to a job, but it will be great taster of the work environment and a valuable insight into working life. It’s also an opportunity to start building networks and developing the CV. It’s all good stuff but is this the most work experience can achieve? There is also the question of how a placement comes about: is it set up by the school, a parent or family friend? Or did the young person pick where they wanted to go and use their network and nous to get the placement they really wanted?

Making it Your Own

Ultimately, what a work experience placement can provide comes down to how relevant it is to you. If you chose it because the sector or job interests you, then the chances are you will squeeze all the contacts, tips and insights out of it. If you experience not only the environment and the people but also the process of deciding what you want and getting it, then you’ve got a well-rounded taste of the choices and challenges coming up, as well as a great story to tell at interviews.

Above all, work experience like this can excite students about their future. This excitement is something we desperately need to nurture at a time when young people are only too aware of the barriers facing them.

One great example of how this has worked for older students is the Year Here programme which provides gap year placements within social enterprises, charities and public sector organisations working with the most disadvantaged people in London. Year Here fellows have the opportunity to immerse themselves in an area that interests them and understand the challenges before leading their own project to address the social issue.

Making it Happen

So how can we make work experience for 14-16 year olds more like Year Here and what’s standing in the way? Well, if we look at what businesses have been doing to help, there is reason to be optimistic. There have been some huge leaps forward to help employers provide more meaningful placements. The Work Inspiration Campaign for example, has engaged hundreds of companies to structure work experience placements in a consistent, well planned and reflective way, supporting businesses to be better educators. Access to opportunities still remains an issue but new platforms like Go Think Big are helping to ease the reliance on personal networks and individual school-business links and starting to build up a pool of high-profile placements across the country.

However, the biggest hurdle is surely how do we ensure young people are well informed enough and ready to be proactive about getting the work experience they want? Here, developments over the last few years do not give as much confidence. Cuts to careers services and changes in requirements for schools have led to confusion, wide disparities in provision and even sometimes conflicts of interest as Tristram Hooley, Head of the International Centre for Guidance Studies at University of Derby points out. So with shrinking budgets, confusing policy and a greater than ever need to support young people into employment, what can schools do?

Bringing the World of Work into the Classroom

One way we can help our 15 and 16 year olds to get the most out of a work experience placement is to make learning in school more like the world of work. At Enabling Enterprise we work together with our partner secondary schools and business supporters to turn maths lessons into consultancy projects, English lessons into marketing initiatives and IT lessons into a crash course on building an internet start-up. By bringing the business experience into the classroom we can give students one type of work experience right from when they enter secondary school. This way they build up an understanding of what a range of companies do and how different roles require different skill sets, while covering the national curriculum in lesson time.

By collecting these valuable experiences over several years and as part of different subjects, students will be much better placed to know what they want and why they want it.