Making work experience work

Written by
Bev White

13 Oct 2015

13 Oct 2015 • by Bev White

Be informed about the future

Criticism about careers advice services within education institutions has been plentiful of late, most recently with a YouGov poll[1] highlighting that one in 10 adults regret basing study choices on poor career advice while at school. Businesses too, have long been vocal about the lack of work ready skills being displayed by those fresh out of school, college or university. Yet, work experience has the potential to address both of these issues, so why is it not being prioritised by educators and employers? 

When discussing work experience in the office it is often met with sighs, followed by comments along the lines of: ‘what’s the point, they won’t add much but will need constant support’. But is the real issue more to do with lack of planning on the organisation’s behalf, not maximising the opportunity work experience presents?

There are plenty of work experience schemes on the market, but unfortunately many placements aren’t planned sufficiently – meaning organisations are ill prepared for when the work experience student arrives.

Change your attitude on work experience

Firstly, organisations and employees need to stop viewing work experience candidates as a burden and see it as a ‘win-win’ opportunity. For businesses it’s a great way to develop employee’s managerial skills, support your talent pipeline and also the CSR agenda by supporting those entering the workplace. Organisational and communication skills are enhanced as the work experience supervisor has to build a pipeline of interesting projects for the candidate, requiring liaising with others around the business. They also need to guide and mentor the work experience individual to ensure that projects are delivered to the required standard. 

When coordinated effectively, work experience programs can also help to alleviate pressure from teams – providing much needed extra support to employees. Tasks or projects that have been sitting on ‘to-do lists’ for weeks can finally be tackled, for example, work experience candidates helping with research projects.

On the flip side, work experience candidates need help from the business in understanding upfront what their placement will entail in order to set and manage their expectations. Whether the placement has been secured by parents, supported through their Careers Service or otherwise, the basics need to be covered. Failure to do so can lead to misunderstanding and even cause the relationship to fall down, especially if the organisation expects a certain behaviour and the candidate displays another.

Whilst some information and etiquette pointers may seem obvious, it’s better to assume limited knowledge and start from the beginning to ensure everyone is on the same page. So this includes covering core working hours, dress code, taking short breaks for coffee and the toilet (not having to ask for example), and the type of tasks that will be assigned during their time with the company.

First impressions

Organisations need to be mindful that going on work experience may be the first time the candidate has ever been in an office, so they are working from a base knowledge of none as to what is appropriate behaviour and required of them. The facilitators, such as Careers Services advisors and parents, also need to be ready to take more responsibility for ensuring the success of a placement – imparting knowledge with candidates about what their experience will actually look and feel like, as well as how to prepare and behave. Assigning a mentor throughout the experience can make the difference between a successful and impactful placement where key learnings are highlighted and discussed, or a poor experience for candidate and organisation.

When utilised properly, work experience can be an effective tool for both organisations and individuals. Young people can gain first-hand insight into what the working world is really like and organisations can upskill their workforce while supporting the next generation of talent.