Work experience seems to be a controversial topic of late. Government policy now states that anyone under 21 will have to take a job, an apprenticeship, a traineeship, or an unpaid work placement to receive benefits. My colleague Sean Williams has written elsewhere on the debate surrounding compulsion to participate in work experience programmes. I’d like to come at the issue from a slightly different angle.

Summer Break
When I was eighteen I got a lucky break as a consequence of a pretty unlucky one for a friend. Having broken his heel, he was unable to do his weekend job. I was asked, if I wanted to take it on? And so it was that my first job was running a paintball site. I loved it. It was an active, outdoor job, with lots of engagement with people in a fast-paced environment. I spent several years there, gradually taking on more responsibility and generally having a great time.

It’s only in hindsight that I’ve realised what I gained from this experience:

1. I got used to working hard.
2. I learned that when you are doing something you love, with people you like working with, it doesn’t seem so hard.
3. I learned the importance of delivering a great service and making your customers happy.
4. I learned how to deal with difficult situations.
5. I learned the importance of teamwork and  – as I gained experience – how to lead a team.
6. I learned a lot about the pressures and challenges of running a small business successfully.
7. I learned that if you value staff and trust them to do their work, you build loyalty (it was one of the hardest jobs to give up!)

Now, I was lucky. Lots of young people don’t benefit from a paid work experience placement, that is personally tailored and of which they feel the benefit for years to come. But, why shouldn’t they?

What does good look like?
Work experience is a really important component of effective employment support. Some of the most effective employment programmes have been built around work experience (for example, the Future Jobs Fund.)

But there is good, effective work experience and bad, ineffective work experience. So, here are some thoughts on how we use work experience programmes effectively, in helping young people get and keep a good job.

1. Work experience needs to be useful, necessary and relevant.

Let’s not shove people into support that they don’t need, aren’t prepared for or will not help them into work. I’ve written elsewhere about how we do this far too often. For some people, lack of work experience is not a barrier to work. For others it’s the least of their problems. So, let’s make sure we use it wisely – when it will make a real difference. This requires investment – in front-line advisory staff and in effective tools for assessment and streaming.

2. Work experience has to be really high quality.

This requires commitment and investment from government, providers and employers. We’ve probably all seen what bad work experience looks like. Some of us may have experienced it. Good work experience will provide the opportunity to gain new skills, include mentoring or ‘buddying’, and provide regular feedback. The participant will be treated as a real member of the team, but the placement will not be used to fill a vacancy. 

3. Work experience has to be underpinned by supported job search activity.

Alongside the placement, young people should have a dedicated personal advisor, who works with them to identify the experience they are gaining, use it to build their CV and support their job search activity – making sure that it is realistic, achievable and suits their skills and (growing!) experience. This also requires investment – in skilled professional personal advisors who have the time to deliver the level of support required to each participant. 

Is it worth it?
The human cost of long-term unemployment from a young age is devastating – to individuals and communities. In 2012, ACEVO estimated the annual cost of youth unemployment to be almost £5bn (and estimated a further £10bn in lost economic output). When the cumulative impact over many years is estimated, we reach a figure of £28bn over a decade. This is also not the place to invoke the invest-to-save argument, partly because these figures make it so obviously the right thing to do.

If we wanted to make the elimination of youth unemployment a priority – a national mission – we certainly could do so. High quality work experience would be at the heart of that mission. The resources, expertise and opportunities to deliver certainly exist. We simply require the will.

Do you think that work experience is a valuable tool in improving employability? What more could we do to unlock the potential of high quality work placements? Do you provide work experience? What’s been the benefit for your organisation?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can reach me here.

George Selmer, Director, ThinkWinDo