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Work experience – what difference does it make?

In this blog for Work Experience Week 2015, Paddy Patterson of Maverish Ltd and founder of Oxfordshire Apprenticeships, considers the difference that work experience can make both to young people and employers this .

With National Work Experience Week upon us, I’m reminded of the fact that we are forever told that ‘there’s no substitute for experience’. And an Apprenticeship, of course, is a great way of getting hands-on experience while earning a wage and getting a qualification. Yet as many employers find a wider and stronger talent pool for their Apprenticeship vacancies, there seems to be an increasing need for candidates to bring prior-experience to the table, in order to get ahead of the competition.

But when a student wants to leave full-time education and go into an Apprenticeship, how are they supposed to have gained that work experience? A recent report tells us that the number of young people with Saturday jobs has fallen from almost 50% in 1996 to just under 20% in less than twenty years. Pressure of study and fear of exam failure is the most cited reason for young people not working part-time. Summer jobs appear to be in decline also with the Employment Minister Priti Patel calling, in August, for more young people to work during the holidays to get valuable experience. Which leaves us with school work experience. 

Work experience seems to have had a bit of a bad rep over the years. We’ve all heard the stories. Apocryphal tales of aspiring doctors being sent to spend a week in a shop or students doing little more than making tea for employers who had no idea what to do with them. So when the government made the decision to drop compulsory work experience for 14-16 year olds in 2012, many assumed it would become a thing of the past and schools and employers alike would breathe a sigh of relief at seeing the back of an onerous responsibility.

But the truth is somewhat different on both counts. It seems schools work experience programmes are very much alive and kicking, and doing an ever more vital job in giving young people valuable insight into a working environment and providing even the most rudimentary ‘employability skills’. Despite the removal of statutory duty, it seems most schools still provide some form of work experience for students, either organised themselves or via a third party service. The Experience service at Oxfordshire County Council reported that in 2014/15 it processed 6625 work experience placements, with 79% of those being for those in pre-16 compulsory education. So why do schools continue to value the programme?

Judith Knowles is a Careers Adviser at Burford School: “Work experience enables students to see how the subjects they are currently studying are applicable to the workplace and they come back with increased focus and motivation. When making applications, it gives them a way of demonstrating their interests to an employer and they are able to cite their experiences to strengthen their applications.”

The programme remains popular with local employers too, with some 3,027 businesses providing placements through the Oxfordshire Work Experience team in 2014/15. There is an increasing number of local businesses, such as Minster Joinery, Maylarch, Williams Jet Tenders, Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir and 2015 winner of the Oxfordshire Apprenticeship of the Year, Darke & Taylor, who have taken on Apprentices who had been with them on work experience placements. And there are also new, innovative ways that local businesses are using work experience placements as ‘tasters’ of what an Apprenticeship in their business or sector might be like.

MRC Harwell were one of a number of organisations who took part in Science Oxford’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) World of Work Programme. They provided a one-week ‘STEM Apprentice placement’ to 17 year old Chloe Manning from Wood Green School in Witney during the summer holidays. The organisation sees real value in using the scheme to help their talent pipeline; “It’s a great chance for them to see if an Apprenticeship in a STEM career is right for them. This has been the first time we have hosted one of these Apprenticeship placements, and since it was so successful we hope it will provide a great taste of our Apprenticeship scheme for others in the future.”

And of course, as well as work experience being valuable in confirming and endorsing a student’s career choices, it can also result in the opposite outcome, which is arguably equally as useful! One of the Oxfordshire Apprenticeship Ambassadors, Steph Rockett, is now doing a HR & Business Administration Apprenticeship at Oxford City Council, but did not spend her work experience placement in an office: “I used to want to work with kids but did two weeks work experience which made me realise I definitely didn’t! I also feel like you have nothing to lose doing work experience as it’s a good way to get a taste of what you want to do.

So as we remain focused on how we best equip young people with the skills that our businesses need, both now and in the future, it seems schools work experience has an increasingly vital role to play in that process and long may it continue!

Pictured is Jerrit, who joined Oxfordshire Apprenticeships on work experience in July 2015.

Work experience and the difference it can make - including leading to an Apprenticeship - was the discussion topic for Oxfordshire Apprenticeships Hour (#OAHour) on Twitter during Work Experience Week 2015. See the discussion below.