David Docherty, CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Businesses (NCUB) and Chairman of Placer, explains three key areas for employers to focus on to make work experience, work.
Businesses and employers have long offered work experience to students, and universities and colleges have worked hard to help. But, there are massive challenges in quality, quantity and access. Work experiences can often be low level admin, or at the very worst, dogsbody tasks, and there is also a significant shortfall in the number of work experience opportunities available for the 2.3 million university students in the UK.
Just recently, CIPD released a report ‘The graduate employment gap: expectations versus reality’ which found although companies desperately need graduates with, for example, science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills, graduates in these fields are more likely to be unemployed six months after graduation.
Businesses are calling out for graduates to be skilled and work ready, and two-thirds of businesses cite work experience as a critical factor in recruiting entry-level talent. Yet only one third of employers offer work experience according to a report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility
If employers need skilled graduates ready for the workplace, and students need employment; why is the UK still facing this gap? How can we ensure talented graduates have the vital employability skills needed to make it into the labour market more quickly and successfully?
There are three key areas for employers to make work experience, work.
Make the most of work experience, develop a plan of activity
The stereotype of a work experience placement is a young person making tea, printing copious documents, or tidying stationery cupboards. Work experience of this type is of little benefit to the student, or the employer. We know that some employers are working hard to develop structured work plans for those undertaking work experience, but what should this look like in practice?
Prior to the student arriving at the workplace, employers should take time to work with colleagues to unearth small and interesting projects that the individual can take ownership of. Choosing non-urgent work that would benefit from a fresh young perspective can be beneficial to both parties. Both taking the time to understand the individual interests, and rotating them between departments, will give them a chance to develop their skills while having an overview of the business at large, and where they might fit in.
Contact time should be regular and informative to keep the individual engaged with little time wasted, essential especially for short placements. Having a thorough thought-out plan will mean the individual can work without the need of constant monitoring, giving them a sense of independence which is crucial for the world of work. Finally, employers should ensure that they set aside time at the end of a student’s placement to see how they found it, what they learnt, and if they have any criticisms. Leaving on an amicable note will allow the student to retain a positive attitude to your organisation, for more likely consideration when they are seeking a graduate role.
Move beyond word of mouth networks to support diversity
Most businesses are striving to have a more diverse workforce, so why not start the process from the outset, ensuring that this forms an important aspect of how you attract and fill your work experience placements.
At the National Centre for Universities and Business, we found that word-of-mouth networks are still being used as a key channel to recruit for work experience. If employers are only bringing in other people like their current workforce, how can they be truly diverse? When advertised publicly, work experience can attract bright students from a wide range of backgrounds in to your organisation. And if there was ever doubt about on the business case for a diverse workforce, a 2015 report from McKinsey showed that companies with a diverse mix of employees are 35% more likely to innovate and outperform their competitors.
Offering work experience in a structured way beyond word of mouth networks, and having flexibility with the qualifying criteria, will open doors to students from less advantaged backgrounds, who may not have the ‘connections’ but can bring so much to your organisation.
Build a talent pool for future vacancies
Ultimately, work experience should be of value to the young person but, if businesses deliver it well, there are many rewards to reap. Developing skills specific to your needs as well as exposing bright young minds to your organisation’s culture, businesses can enable you to build and nurture your own talent pool. With regular communication, as and when graduate roles arise, you can dip in to your pool for suitable future employees that are able to come in and hit the ground running.
In essence, a more structured approach is needed to get the best out of work experience. A process in which placements of varying lengths are advertised publicly, helps businesses to ensure the diversity their talent and young people are recruited on merit alone.
Platforms such as Placer – a new work experience app that directly connects businesses with university and FE students – uses blind matchmaking technology to help reduce unconscious bias, allowing employers to tap into the thousands of passionate and highly-adaptive talented students by offering quality work experience placements.
Ensuring young people have the skills to take on high-paid, high-skilled jobs and developing talented people is one the principal pillars of the Government’s recently announced Industrial Strategy. If employers want the best, they have to be the best. Let’s make work experience, work.
Placer enables businesses of all sizes to reach a diverse young talent pool of digitally native students with key skills, far beyond their word-of-mouth networks with just one, free, post. Employers can sign-up to Placer here: placer.co.uk.