Work experience is key in enhancing students’ employability skills, giving young people a glimpse into the world of work and a particular industry they may curious about. Getting work experience under the belt isn’t only great in terms of personal development, but it is also a key decision-making factor from a company’s perspective throughout the recruitment process. According to the UKCES Employer Perspectives Survey, relevant work experience was rated by 66% of recruiting employers as being a critical or significant factor looked for in candidates. More recently, a new study has revealed that apprenticeships and work-based experience is now favoured over degrees by employers, making the argument for the importance of work experience even more prevalent.
But for work experience to be valuable, you have to source the right kind of work experience – one that enriches your student’s education rather than it just being something to tick off the to-do list. We’ve collated some handy tips to help support your students.
Communicate the value of work experience
You’re probably already aware of the benefits of work experience, but it’s important that students know you know. If work experience is seen as merely a tick-box exercise, students aren’t going to treat it as something of value. John Wastnage, of the British Chambers of Commerce, shares his thoughts on the value of work experience:
“Work experience is an important part of preparing young people for their adult lives. It provides a chance for young people to experience a very different environment from school. As well as getting a taste of a particular industry, they learn that work can be both exciting and boring. For many it will be the first time they work alongside people of different ages and backgrounds.”
It’s probably true to say that the search for work experience placements cannot start too early. The process is almost certainly likely to take longer than you think. And if you can get some of your placements sorted sooner rather than later, that’s going to help in the long run. There are bound to be a few which fall through or are hard to arrange so being prepared earlier is always better.
Organise solid research
Get some research under your belt before organising the work experience – or even get your students to do their own research. Set them the task of finding out about the local employment scene, thinking about:
- What are the local industries?
- Is the area known for a particular industry or employer?
- Is there a large hospital or distribution centre? A retail park or industrial estate? A creative hub, art gallery or theatre? Sports arena or racecourse?
They all employ people – and any, or all, might be keen to offer work experience.
If you’ve got a student who’s interested in a particular occupation or sector, task them to find out whether any organisation carries out that function within a reasonable travel distance. An internet search on ‘occupation XX in the YY area’ will yield results.
See past the obvious
You might need to point out to your students the less-obvious work experience opportunities. For example, a student who knows that the main local employer is a hospital might tell you that they “don’t want to work in a hospital” or that they “aren’t interested in medicine or nursing”.
Remind them that hospitals have a huge range of different jobs – some linked to medicine (eg healthcare science, alternative medicine, allied health professions) others much less so. Do they realise that hospitals also have accountants, artists, librarians, surveyors, electricians, plumbers, drivers, admin and managers? Hospitals which offer work experience will include programmes across all their departments.
Likewise, any organisation (particularly a large one) has ‘back office functions’. So the local distribution centre almost certainly has finance, admin, HR and IT staff and may also have mechanics, catering, etc alongside its core functions of logistics and warehousing.
Explore the right places
As well as approaching local organisations – which you may already have on your database – bear in mind that many national organisations have long-established work experience programmes. Some may operate in your area – or you may have students who are prepared to travel.
Company websites – you can find work experience placements for larger companies usually in their ‘careers’ or ‘work for us’ section. Here are some suggestions:
Do be aware, though, that these schemes are very competitive and often have early closing dates so start looking in good time.
Professional bodies – most career areas now have a professional body or trade association. These can be a useful source of contacts and some even have web pages about work experience. GOV.UK publishes an alphabetical list of many professional bodies (comprehensive but not exhaustive). Many have an education or careers department which could offer advice. Here’s a few to start you off:
Sector skills councils/bodies – some have useful advice and contacts for work experience, including:
University departments – many offer work experience or summer programmes – often they are residential and some offer funding to attend. Try:
Even those who do not offer work experience themselves can point you in the right direction:
- University of Manchester offers advice on chemistry or physics and materials sciencework experience.
- University of Edinburgh has information on physics and astronomy.
Use personal contacts
This can be a very effective way to find work experience placements. Have you made any industry contacts during your time as a teacher or careers leader? What about people you met at that conference? Or the relation you were chatting to at a family get-together? Someone who you used to work with who’s now left teaching?
Encourage your students to do the same. Who do they know that works in the field that they are interested in? Even if they don’t want to ‘do work experience with their mum or dad’, there might be other parts of the same organisation which could offer them what they’re looking for.
Be bold and ask
When you’re sourcing work experience placements, don’t be afraid to contact people (or organisations) direct. Small, local organisations in particular may not advertise any work experience placements but many will still be willing to host a student for a week or two.
Again, encourage your students to do the same. Just ask and the worst that can happen is that the person says no. If your students are a bit hesitant to make the first approach, maybe you can make the initial contact. Find out whether the company or person is receptive and then get the student to follow it up.
The entire sourcing process promotes interpersonal skills and if a student has researched local organisations, approached companies and made at least some of their own arrangements, they will have learnt valuable job search and networking skills which can only increase their chances of success in the world of work.
You, and your students need to be clear about what exactly they want to achieve, especially when you – or they – are approaching companies speculatively. Does your student want:
- experience of a particular job or profession?
- general experience of a work environment?
- experience of a particular industry?
Thinking about this will help you ask the right questions when setting up the placement.
All experience is good experience
Many students are disappointed when they can’t find the placement they thought they wanted. If all that’s available is, perhaps, a shop or office placement, they may feel it’s a bit of a waste of their time. However, you can tell them otherwise.
Any workplace will give a student some experience of aspects of the world of work, which most of us probably take for granted as well as forget that we had to learn them in the early days of our working life.
A placement in more or less any workplace will show a student what it’s like to:
- work to targets
- rely on other team members and have them rely on you
- be supervised in a job
- work for a good (or bad!) manager
- be involved in making sure the business makes a profit
- keep customers happy.
And, for the future, any work experience can help with
- UCAS statements
- apprenticeship or university interviews
- job interviews, including part-time and weekend jobs while at school or college.
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So there we have it; our handy tips on sourcing the right work experience for your students and how you can support them in this valuable process. Here’s a final word from Matthew Hancock, Minister for Skills, who sums up the importance of work experience for all stakeholders:
“Work experience is vital for young people and employers. It bridges the gap between school, college and work, helps young people make decisions about their future and develop new skills whilst at the same time giving employers the chance to spot good new recruits.”