Has work experience had its day?

More than ever before, employers are crying out for school and college leavers to have stronger employability skills and to be better prepared for the world of work.  Traditional work experience, it seems, is not doing the job.

Work experience often takes place towards the end of the summer term, once all of the ‘important’ business of the school year has been completed, almost as an afterthought.  A combination of patchy careers advice, and variable links between schools and local employers, can mean that there is a poor fit between the student and the workplace.

Too often there is minimal dialogue between the school and the employer as to what experience is to be provided, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that the work experience student is assigned menial or inconsequential tasks.  Getting the work experience student photocopying, tidying up a storeroom or making the tea doesn’t bring meaningful benefits to either the employer or the young person. 

Whilst this is admittedly something of a caricature, it is too close to the reality for many, and it is why work experience has had such a bad press.  Indeed, such are the negative connotations that are attached to the term, my colleagues at City College Norwich talk instead about Experience of Work.

This is about more than just terminology; it is about a much greater focus and emphasis on young people’s destinations when they leave the education system.  This is backed by the development of innovative approaches to giving students more meaningful Experience of Work.

This includes year-round activities where students undertake work on live briefs and projects for employers in real work settings.  Media make-up students, for example, work at Mustard TV providing make-up for the presenters and guests on the Mustard Show.  College companies provide opportunities for students to apply their skills with real clients – from sports massage at endurance cycling events and triathlons (Extreme Sports Therapy Unit), to film-making (Paper Plane Productions) and catering for commercial and private events (Devour).

The idea of “student takeovers” – which the college has been running successfully with local hotels for 17 years – is also gaining momentum.  This approach is now being promoted nationally through the Children’s Commissioner’s Officer, whose recent Takeover Challenge saw hundreds of pupils throughout Norfolk getting involved.  A key feature is that this extends to roles right up to and including senior managers and chief executives.  If we want to create business leaders for the future, we need students to gain insight into these types of roles.

Experience of Work can also involve employers coming in to the school or college and setting students realistic work-related tasks and then giving feedback on their performance.  This has been a feature of the Technical Challenges that employer partners from the engineering and manufacturing sectors provide at University Technical College Norfolk.      

Work experience, where this means simply parachuting a young person into a workplace for a week with little attention to how this supports preparation for their future career, has had its day.  Fortunately, here in Norfolk, we have enlightened schools, colleges and employers, who are willing to commit to altogether more meaningful experiences.

Pictured: City College Norwich childcare student Katie Dade tried her hand at being head teacher for the day alongside Parkside School’s head Mrs Booth on Takeover Challenge Day.