Compulsory work experience was abandoned in Britain in 2012. If there’s any evidence that this has left students better equipped for the challenges of the job market, it’s been well hidden. Polling by the British Chamber of Commerce indicates that over 80% of business managers are in favour of work placements for the under 16s.
Why is work experience important in helping prepare young people for the workplace?
And what do they have to contribute to an employer on a placement?
Forgive me, but I’m not going to bother answering the first question. Anyone out there who can’t figure out how a period of work experience adds value to a young person’s preparation for future employment should stop reading right now. Let’s consider the second question. What does an employer have to gain from offering a work placement? Among many possible answers, I’d like to consider two.
“20 years ago the cool stuff was at work but not at home. Now in many cases that’s flipped, and some companies are struggling to cope”
These were the words of a senior corporate training manager at a recent eLearning conference. The reality of the 2017 workplace is that many of us are encouraged to bring our devices to work, and to bring our understanding of cutting edge communication along too. We’ve reached a tipping point in the UK, with more people choosing to access the internet via mobile phone than any other device. Social media activity is an increasing driver of corporate marketing, making familiarity with it an increasing asset. In recent years I’ve seen more and more young people add immediate value on work experience, not only through their ability to adapt to the environment but their initiative in improving it. The enthusiastic and tech-savvy intern sometimes contributes more in three zippy months than “been there, done that” employees will in three stale years.
And when the skills a young person brings to the workplace include a second language, the value they add is multiplied. In parts of mainland Europe, children learn languages from the age of three. In the UK we’re having to battle to make it mandatory from the age of seven, and it’s a fight worth winning. I’ve seen under 16s with language skills applying their talents to excellent effect on work placements. When they pick up the phone or compose emails, communicating impeccably in second languages, they add a new dimension to their experience and to the companies they visit.
The benefits that young people accrue from practical work experience are obvious and invaluable. But let’s not imagine that offering a placement means you have to carry a passenger. It’s never too early to start nurturing talent and it’s never too late to learn from young people who have it.