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Without advice and guidance, work experience isn’t worth much

Expert advice and information with the young person’s interests at heart is crucial, writes Peter Chambers…

Much has been made recently of the value of work experience. Government representatives have repeatedly reinforced the notion that activities with employers are the most important element of careers information, advice and guidance (CIAG) and increasing young people’s employability.

In fact, they seem to consider this more important than face to face guidance by teachers or other experts, for example. The recent report on work experience published by DfE makes scant reference to the scaffolding that is necessary to make work experience effective in helping young people into career choices that are right for them.

Under ‘impacts and benefits’ the report highlights the importance of opportunities for building soft employability skills such as ‘communication and interpersonal skills’ and ‘increased confidence’ which schools value. Work experience coordinators in schools found that the most important impact was having a ‘better understanding of the world of work and/ or industries’, followed by increased confidence and ‘improved employability’. But these will not be achieved solely by employer contact.

Supporting DfE’s positive view of work experience in and of itself are concerns about the decline in the traditional Saturday job. In the past, many school and college students ‘earned while they learned’ in this way, with or without prompting from their schools. But while nearly half of 16-17 year old students were studying and working 10 years ago, by 2014 that had declined to 18%.

‘The government has placed a big focus on work experience and trying to get young people into placements, but actually the main way people used to get experience of employment used to be by getting part-time work, whether it was agricultural work or in the coffee shop,’ said Kirsty McHugh, chief executive of ERSA, which represents more than 200 organisations working with jobseekers. ‘Talk to anybody over the age of 40 and they will have done bar work or some other sort of job earlier on. That is changing.’

What is the value of work experience?

That certainly was the case for me, and I’m a long way over 40. Between age 15 and leaving university I had some two dozen weekend and ‘vac jobs’, which I took mainly to top up my student grant.

Without any long-term aim or advice from school/college or employers, I took on jobs in a wide range of locations and businesses, including: washer up in a hotel and in an army camp, factory lathe operative, labourer on various farms and in a broiler chicken factory, van driver for a TV shop, brewery worker, barman, door-to-door salesperson, BBC despatch rider, tutor in maths and English, and assistant caretaker in a school that was at that time described as for ‘educationally subnormal and maladjusted’ children.

Only the last two jobs offered experiences that were remotely relevant to my later career, but at the time I enjoyed each of the jobs to some degree. It helps if you know you’ll only be there for a few weeks.

I did gain some experiences and learn some things that were relevant later: to be willing and versatile; that academic skills are not the only valuable ones; that you can get along well with a wide range of people from different backgrounds; that your opinion (eg as a barman) is less important to the boss than that of the customer.

And some of the things I saw and heard made a lasting impression, though it is debatable whether they had any impact on my subsequent career. For example:

  • Factory shop steward: ‘When the whistle blows, stop working!’
  • Farmer, to visitor distressed at seeing the condition of 5,000 chickens, 10 to a cage, in a hut 70 feet long: ‘madam, it’s been scientifically proved that these chickens are happier here than they would be out on the range.’
  • ‘Maladjusted’ pupils ‘borrowing’ a chainsaw in the lunch hour and cutting down the two largest trees in the school park. (Lesson: keep a closer eye on the equipment – and, perhaps, have more respect for what those kids can do.)

However, I didn’t gain much in the areas that are now agreed to be crucial in work experience when viewed as part of career development. Little of this related to teamwork, communication or problem solving – because, like most ‘earning while learning’ young people, I had no formal guidance, direction, or purpose.

Our purpose was earning money, having fun where possible – and yes, sometimes being stimulated about what the organisation was aiming to achieve and how we might contribute. But a long way short of the full range of functions of which work experience should be just a part.

So the experience of this one individual, many years ago and without direct involvement from school, suggests that work experience by itself may have quite limited benefits in terms of career choices and development. It’s much more complicated than various government pronouncements suggest.

In addition, young people need high quality careers advice, combined with the tools to make informed choices. And the work experience has to be selected to suit the aims, interests and capacities of the youngster.

The Gatsby foundation’s report on careers guidance offers eight useful benchmarks:

  1. A stable careers programme
  2. Learning from career and labour market information
  3. Addressing the needs of each pupil
  4. Linking curriculum learning to careers
  5. Encounters with employers and employees
  6. Experiences of workplaces
  7. Encounters with further and higher education
  8. Personal guidance.

Impartial advice

Crucially, it notes, young people considering their careers and suitable work experience should have an interview with an appropriately trained adviser: someone with the guidance skills, the knowledge of information sources and the essential impartiality to do the job…. This person might be an external adviser (Career Development Institute has a register of qualified practitioners), or trained members of the existing school staff, whose careers role could be part- or full-time. School leaders told the authors of the Gatsby report that they thought personal guidance important because it:

  • tailors advice to individual needs
  • can direct pupils towards the information sources of most use to them, and the actions most relevant to them
  • can (and always should) give impartial advice that has only the pupils’ interests at heart.

It’s surely important, then, for schools and employers to work closely together in a number of ways to give young people the best chance of seeing their way forward in their careers. A 2015 NFER report includes six case histories with some useful approaches, including:

  • Schools seeking out local events and employment opportunities that students could staff.
  • Identifying employer needs and developing work experience opportunities to address them, eg students acting as sports coaches in other schools.
  • Showcasing students’ capabilities to employers.
  • Targeting small and medium sized companies (SMEs) which could benefit from a young person’s skills in, for example, social media or excel spreadsheets.
  • Engaging all teachers in helping to prepare young people for the world of work.
  • Considering replacing the traditional ‘one week towards the end of summer term’ work experience: offering one day a week, for example, might give students a better understanding of the world of work and the opportunity to build relationships with workplace-based colleagues.
  • Generally, avoiding placements in areas where there are not likely to be employment or apprenticeship opportunities in the near future: the work experience has to link to a job or trade.
  • And yes, engaging employers to visit the school to do enterprise-related activities such as mock interviews and ‘guru talks’ with students.

If the above criteria are met, the Job Centre Plus Support for Schools initiative, which will be rolled out to 1,000 state secondary schools in England this year, could be useful. Under this scheme (intended to supplement existing careers advice such as the Careers and Enterprise Company), schools can choose from options including:

  • advice and guidance on apprenticeships and traineeships, eg arranging presentations, workshops and sessions with local providers
  • help with arranging industry taster days, where students visit local employers or sector-specific training facilities
  • support with arranging work experience placements for students
  • support with arranging employer visits to schools
  • discussions about job opportunities in the local labour market.

Peter Chambers is publications editor for SSAT. A former teacher, school governor and governor trainer, he has worked for SSAT and its predecessor organisations for some years, writing and editing a large number of reports, newsletters, case histories and pamphlets. He is also a coach and trainer in writing/editing for professional audiences.


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