“It helps young people find out more about the working world, can give insight into what careers and jobs are available and what they need to do to get there. Crucially, young people tend to listen more to employers than to teachers or parents so their interventions, such as careers talks, work tasters and advice and guidance, can be very powerful.” CIPD

Research in 2012 by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) found that the share of full-time learners at 16-17 years old who combine work with their learning has been declining steadily from 40 per cent in the late 1990s to around 20 per cent in 2011. This indicates that young people in the UK are leaving education increasingly less experienced in the working world.

At the same time, surveys of employers find that significant numbers rate previous job experience as critical in new recruits.

A strong consensus has developed in support of the common sense notion that contact with employers – via work experience, part time work, careers activities in schools, workplace visits or other means – can help smooth the transition to the workplace for young people and boost their chances of finding employment.

Many experts in this field also insist that the best learning in employability skills that a young person can undertake is to have a real experience of work.

The Benefits

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD ) the benefits of work experience include:

  • breaking the vicious circle that many young people find themselves in, where they can’t get a job because of lack of experience and can’t get experience because they can’t find a job
  • providing young people with an understanding of the structure and reality of working life, which is crucial if they are to secure and sustain employment
  • providing feedback and coaching to enable young people to develop skills, including those required in specific jobs and sectors
  • helping young people to make informed choices about their futures and allow them to learn more about specific industries, organisational cultures and job roles
  • allowing young people to gain experience of working with people, enhancing their social and communication skills, and awareness of how to present themselves and behave in a work context
  • providing opportunities to learn about recruitment processes (such as how to do job interviews and how to apply for a job)
  • providing a positive experience of the world of work that builds the young person’s confidence and motivation
  • helping young people to build their CVs (for instance by providing some formal training) and support them in the development of networks.

Divided Responsibility

While advocating that schools have an important role in preparing young people to handle relationships at work, experts tend to conclude that the workplace is where the bulk of this kind of learning needs to takes place.

There is an interesting contrast or tension here with the views of some employers who claim that schools need to take greater responsibility for getting workers ‘job ready’.

What is beyond doubt is the strong preference for taking on novice workers who have had some experience of workplace practices and social norms.

UKCES also reported in 2012 on a study of 100 employers that investigated which skills, experiences and attributes they look for when recruiting young people. All of the businesses in the study highlighted the importance of experience of work, or at the very least, an awareness and basic understanding of work. This included part-time jobs and voluntary work as well as experiences arranged by schools and parents.

Pressure is On

The increase in youth unemployment levels in the UK has led to increasing calls for greater involvement of employers in the education system to address the perceived weaknesses.

In May 2012 the CIPD launched the Learning to Work campaign, which encourages employers to:

  • build closer links with schools and colleges
  • provide high quality work experience placements
  • increase access to the professions
  • create more opportunities for work-based learning and training

They say their campaign “aims to encourage employers to help prepare young people for the world of work while at the same time making the world of work more youth friendly”.

CIPD’s surveys of their members suggest a willingness among employers to help improve young people’s labour market opportunities.

They say that over one-third of their members feel that there should be better collaboration between education and employers and that more than half of CBI members would like to play a greater role in delivering career services.

Barriers to Progress

Despite this potential willingness to help on the part of employers, UKCES says there are significant barriers to overcome if we are to improve young people’s transition to the world of work. These obstacles include:

  • communication difficulties between schools and businesses and the lack of “infrastructure” to help bring the two together
  • constraints on time and resources for both schools and employers – especially smaller businesses
  • the preference of schools to confine work experience to school holiday periods
  • a lack of advice for both schools and employers on issues such as insurance, health and safety and potential Disclosure and Barring Service checks (formerly CRB)

It should not be forgotten that in the past local authorities had a legal responsibility to arrange work experience for all students in Key Stage 4. They had special units which worked with schools and placement providers to overcome the above problems and support both parties in making arrangements for young people.

Now it is the direct responsibility of schools to arrange their own links with employers and they are being encouraged by the government to shift this activity into the 16 to 19 age range in tandem with the new Raising the Participation Age (RPA) legislation.

Do Employers Really Mean Business?

A recent study by the Chartered Management Institute , the Association of Business Schools and the Quality Assurance Agency has highlighted a further difficulty in the tendency for some employers to say one thing but do another. The report concludes that employers are not offering enough work experience placements to business school students, despite the fact that the majority are looking for ‘business-ready’ graduates.

While 89% of employers contacted agreed that including work experience within business courses makes students more employable just 22% of them currently offer work placements or internships to business school students.

They also found that just 17% of employers turn to business schools when looking to recruit first-time managers, with 45% preferring to use business schools to train and develop staff instead. At the same time, 51% have experienced difficulties in recruiting high calibre new managers because they cannot find candidates with the right skills.

Learning in the Workplace; work based learning; work experience


Equality of Access

A report in 2012 by the Education and Employers Taskforce and CIPD said work experience makes a big difference to the career progress of young people and argued that this should be reflected in a more systematic approach which doesn’t rely on the networking skills of parents and friends.

“The problem is that half of placements are found by young people or by their families using largely existing social networks.”

They expressed concern that in a tight jobs market the way that work experience is currently delivered can give an unfair advantage to well connected families.

They said that work experience should open new doors rather than reinforcing social disadvantage and that work experience which relies on informal networks is not “equitably accessed”.

The report claims that more than two-thirds of head teachers felt pupils were more motivated after returning from work experience and that it helps young people improve their applications and chances of getting a place in university.

Progress Too Slow

There is much concern that changes introduced by the Coalition Government since 2010
mean that many schools are considering moving away from organising work experience for some teenagers.

Nick Chambers, director of the Education and Employers Taskforce, said recently:

“Traditionally at this time of year more than 500,000 15 year olds are returning from their Easter holidays planning to do a two-week, summer-term placement with an employer. However, work experience is undergoing major change, perhaps the most significant for a generation. These changes are being driven by the government encouraging work experience for older pupils aged 16-19, repealing the statutory requirement to work-related learning at Key Stage 4 [14 to 16 year olds] and schools now having to bear the full costs of organising it.”

Brian Lightman, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, added that work experience could have a very positive impact on young people but this does not always happen automatically.

“Effective work experience placements need proper planning and need to be matched to the needs of students.”


Where are we now?

Anyone who was to say that the Coalition Government’s policies on vocational guidance for school leavers are shambolical would be open to the accusation that they were seriously understating the extent of the problems!

In 2014 they undertook a major reorganisation of the National Careers Service which included giving this body a major role in developing links between schools and employers. In January 2015 they have announced the setting up of “a new, independent careers and inspiration company, that will encourage greater collaboration between schools and employers.” And the first responsibility given to this employer led organisation will be:

“To use relationships with employers – private, public and third sector – to break down barriers between schools and colleges on the one hand and employers on the other, and increase the level of employer input into careers, inspiration and enterprise in all schools and colleges.”

This clash of responsibilities reflects the well-publicised squabbling between the two government departments with a shared responsibility for careers education and guidance; The Department for Education(DfE) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

In support of this “inspiration agenda” BIS has published the report on an enquiry into industry-education links by the Institute for Employment Research completed in 2014. This research included gathering views and information from 301 employers and a range of secondary schools and FE colleges. Some of the key findings were:

  1. Of all employers surveyed, nearly half had previously been engaged with schools/ colleges.
  2. Employers who offered apprenticeship or other types of training to young people were more likely to engage with schools/colleges and there is some evidence that larger companies were more likely to do so than smaller companies.
  3. The most frequently mentioned types of engagement were work experience and/or visits from school or college students. Altruistic reasons were the most important for engaging with schools/colleges, with employers thinking that it was a ‘good thing to do’, and/or that it facilitated local community engagement.
  4. More than half of all engaged employers had undertaken some type of activity in the last half year. Main reasons for a lack of more regular engagement were threefold:1)  lack of time and resources;

    2)  unwillingness of schools (unable or not interested); and

    3)  the age restriction preventing employment of staff under the age of 18 years.

  5. Approximately half of all engaged employers indicated that these activities had not had any benefit to their business.
  6. Approximately half of all employers surveyed had never engaged with schools or colleges.
  7. Nearly all of these indicated that they were not interested in linking with schools or colleges in the future, because of lack of time and resources; financial reasons, and/or barriers created by health and safety and insurance regulations. Some stated that they could not see any potential benefit to their businesses of this activity.
  8. Just under half of the employers surveyed were aware of the National Careers Service.
  9. Amongst employers who were engaged with schools or colleges, the proportion was slightly higher.

[ ‘Understanding the link between employers and schools and the role of the National Careers Service’ Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick ; December 2014 ]


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