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A changed workplace calls for new types of work experience

Memories of bad work experience persist. The annual teenage procession of two weeks of tea-making at a local firm with little or no benefit to either party still colours our national discourse. People often remark that the only thing they learned from the process was what job they didn’t want. Less return on investment, more dead weight cost.

This needs to change – as policy makers from both main parties have suggested. Modern work experience has more purpose, is focused on those who face most barriers and helps young people build skills – which they struggle to master in school. It stretches over a young person’s time in education, rather than a one-off event.

And there is a strong foundation to build on. Thanks to the hard work of businesses up and down the country, employer engagement with education has improved considerably in recent years. Young people are having more touchpoints with employers than ever before – inside school, outside school and through the curriculum.

As a result, by the time students sit their GCSEs, eight out of ten now say they know the skills employers are looking for and have a plan for their next step. Nearly nine in ten employers say that working with schools and colleges encourages students to take up careers in their sector.

However, young people – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – also report they want more. They want to learn and practice skills like speaking and listening. They also want a greater focus on the practicalities of applications for jobs. Employers, for their part, still talk of skills gaps and of young people ill-prepared for the realities of the workplace.

How do we know this? Well, much of this intelligence comes from the largest ever study of the careers landscape in England ever attempted. It captures insight from more than 100,000 students, 4,500 schools, 340 employers and 1,100 business professionals.

When it comes to work experience, the evidence argues for reinvention

Careers Education: Now and Next was compiled and published by the Careers and Enterprise Company this week as part of National Careers Week. It gives us the most clear-eyed view of the challenges facing UK Plc as it seeks to build its future workforce. The data shows clearly how the improving careers system in England can help. When it comes to work experience, the evidence argues for reinvention.

What does this mean in practice?

For businesses, it’s about moving away from the outmoded two weeks of work experience once a year to an ongoing, meaningful relationship with schools and college, capturing the imagination as soon as young people enter secondary school. This may not mean more time, but it will mean more impact.

For schools and colleges, it’s about embedding this activity in the curriculum, focusing on the skills young people will find useful whatever industry or sector they set their sights on. It’s also about seeing work readiness as a key part of school life. In the mainstream, not at the margins.

There is some fantastic practice to learn from. In the North-East, 11-year-olds are being inspired by meeting employers racing to decarbonise the economy. In London, 13-year-olds are being set enterprise challenges they present back to employers for critique. In Birmingham,17-year-olds are being trained as community researchers by the local hospital. Two weeks’ worth of work experience – as a minimum, spread over a young person’s time at school and focused on learning skills to fill gaps.

This vision can become a reality because the building blocks are in place, not least a strengthening careers system with employers at the centre. The available data allows us to say with confidence that young people and employers in England are benefitting significantly.

But we must go further by looking again at work experience. In doing so, we have part of the solution required to solve the problems currently being faced around equality of opportunity for young people and sustainable economic growth in every part of the UK.

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