Work in Progress: Is work experience really fit for purpose?
2 May 2019

New research published today finds that:

  • Work experience programmes should take place post-16 rather than from age 14.
  • Work experience opportunities should be spread throughout the year.
  • Students should participate in a variety of work placements in groups as well as individually.

Work experience placements should start from age16, take place throughout the school year and provide more than a ‘one-off’ encounter with employers in order to have the greatest positive impact on young people, according to new research.

The report ‘More Than a Job’s Worth: Making Work Experience Fit for Purpose’ was commissioned by WorkFinder (a subsidiary of the charity Founders4Schools) and written by education and youth 'think and action-tank' LKMco.

It calls for a move away from the traditional model of one- and two-week work placements from age 14 and recommends that schools, colleges and universities set up multiple, varied interactions between young people and employers up to the age of 24.

Work experience is more effective post-16 because at this age pupils are more likely to be able to fully develop and use the skills employers value.

For older pupils, research has shown that work experience plays a valuable role in helping them make the difficult leap from education into meaningful employment, especially for those without parental networks to rely on. Many young people struggle with this phase, a problem reflected in worryingly high unemployment rates among 16- to 24-year olds, compared to older groups.

Given the importance of work experience, the report’s authors raise concerns about how patchy access to quality opportunities is across the UK. One-quarter of 14-to-16-year-olds and three quarters of 16-to-19-year-olds in Britain have not taken part in work experience, and access is limited for young people in rural areas, where placements can be harder to find and harder to reach.

Young people from poorer backgrounds are also less likely to experience high-quality work experience opportunities compared to their richer peers. Access is also severely limited for young people with special educational needs or disabilities.

This means some young people experience fewer opportunities to develop their skillset, and employers lose access to a talent pipeline needed to grow the productivity of the nation as a whole.

Commenting on the research, Sherry Coutu, Founder and Chair of Workfinder, said:

“This report calls for immediate action from educators, parents and employers to re-structure work experience. Our future workforce does not routinely acquire relevant skills for work and employers report a huge gap between the skills that are needed and those that are available. Those who would benefit most are those most likely to miss out.”

To get the most out of work experience, the report says, schools should spread interactions throughout the academic year, including both short-term work experience opportunities, lasting one or two weeks, and extended work experience placements which could be undertaken one afternoon a week across a term. Avoiding scheduling work experience as a two-week block at the end of term creates new opportunities for teachers and pupils to reflect, evaluate and learn from the experience and is more likely to fit around businesses’ schedules.

Another way to maximise the impact of work experience opportunities is for schools to send pupils out in groups rather than individually, the report finds. This increases efficiency and creates opportunities to boost personal, social and emotional skills, including teamwork and communication.

As well as providing practical advice for schools, the report also makes suggestions for employers, for example suggesting they take advantage of existing platforms available helping to broker relationships between employers and schools. It adds that government, funders and third sector organisations should share knowledge and good practice in order to encourage a wider range of sectors to offer quality work experience opportunities.

Will Millard, Head of Policy Advocacy at the education and youth think and action tank LKMco, said:

“Many people look back at their work experience and feel it was time wasted, and too often work experience fails to live up to its potential. However, our report sets out how challenging some deeply entrenched assumptions about work experience among educators and employers, including when it should take place, would be very powerful for young people across the country.”

‘Making Work Experience Fit for Purpose’ is based on a review of the best available evidence alongside numerous case studies in schools and colleges around the country, as well as roundtable discussions and expert interviews.

The report is the second in a two-part series, following the publication of ‘Making Careers Education Age-Appropriate’ on 1 April, which found that careers education should begin with children as young as two years old, but that it must be tailored to suit their age and the stage they have reached in their learning.