4 reasons to think differently about work experience

Work Experience was invented in the 1970s. We need to radically change our model to fit the 21st century. We should recognise the real value that young people can bring.

When I ask people about their memories of work experience they joke that the one skill they really nailed was making a cup of tea. 

The office placement model of work experience was invented in the 1970’s by Jack Pidcock of Manchester Careers Service.  It was compulsory for all secondary schools until 2012.

Workplaces and working life have changed radically since the 1970s. Experience of work has never been more crucial.  But hanging out in an office for a week or two has limited value, especially for young people who lack confidence. 

When the gap between what young people learn at school and what they need for work is growing ever wider, how do we give young people the experience they really need?

There is a different way to organise work experience, one that also benefits the organisations that host them.  We think young people are capable of adding real value and they should be invited to participate in the real stuff of work. 

Here are four reasons to think differently about work experience.

1. Young people offer an incredible untapped creative resource

We should stop seeing work experience just as a means of helping the young person and start seeing young people as a resource that organisations should tap into.

Young people have enormous creativity. Recent research into the workings of our brains shows that creativity peaks during the teenage years. 

Adolescence is a time of heightened creativity and novel thinking, energy and passion

Sarah Jane Blakemore, Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London and author of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain.

Young people are open minded and absorb stimulation and ideas from many different places. They can bring this to solving clients problems.

On one of our recent projects, Betool came up with a creative story based idea for a recruitment film that would engage young people. Our client Haringey Council said they would never have thought of that. 

In today’s climate organisations need to innovate continually, but internal teams can easily fall into group think. They need to access novel perspectives and ideas from outside. Working with young people (while also showing them your business) offers a way to do this.

2. Young people represent diverse communities and perspectives

Gen Z is the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in history. They represent future consumers and employees that organisations need to understand better. They are also embedded in families with diverse cultures, ethnicities and values. 

Diversity of thinking makes teams more productive. Cultural understanding is crucial for organisations delivering services to diverse consumers. 

We have seen the value of diverse cultural understanding in action. When researching the views of small businesses in Norwood, 17 year old Sumaya noticed that the corner shop owners were particularly negative about the bills they were paying and couldn’t see the value they got in return.

She used her understanding of her own Somali culture to explain why the way they were being communicated with wasn’t working. She impressed our client so much they employed her to visit the shops and explain the services that would reduce their utility bills.

Diverse young people are your future talent. Many organisations want to build a talent pipeline and want to access diverse communities of young people, but find it hard to reach them. Why not invite a team of young people into your organisation and let them help you reach people like them?

3. Involving young people in real work has a massive impact on their confidence, skills and knowledge of future careers 

Employers generally have two big objections to offering a traditional work placement.  First, “We have no spare capacity to look after a young person” and second, “We don’t have anything for them to do”. 

Changes to the organisation of work, the growth of technology and increasing work specialisation mean that it is really hard to give young people actual work to do.

Work is carried out online using secure systems that require logins and passwords. Work is fast paced and managed as a project. Members of staff are often attending meetings with co-workers or clients. Many professionals operate as freelancers and work from home with no workplace where they could host a student. Many jobs are very specialist and require a high level of skill and are bounded by client confidentiality and GDPR rules.

So, why not turn the problem on its head? 

Instead of wasting valuable staff time making up work for a student to do, why not identify work you actually need done and empower a team of young people to collaborate with you to do it? 

The impact on young people of doing real work is stunning. We see how they take responsibility and grow in confidence as they work alongside professionals and feel, sometimes for the first time in their lives, that they are being taken seriously.

Doing work experience in normal shops and its not really going to help you as as much, whereas jobs like this where you have to work in a team, meet a deadline, that’s what you call real, real work experience.


Every organisation has projects that would benefit from the input of a team of curious, creative, diverse young people – whether that be creating recruitment content or testing new product ideas.  

The young people will gain so much from being part of a real project. You will gain perspectives you hadn’t considered and end up with a better and possibly unexpected result. 

4. Organisations need to pay attention to company culture

It’s never been more of a challenge than now with everyone working at home. Employees want meaning, motivation and purpose so their companies invest in team building and development activities.

Inviting young people to work with you on a project has the same team building effect. 

Organisations also want to demonstrate their social value and give employees opportunities to give back.

A collaborative project with young people creates a sense of shared purpose. People enjoy giving back and sharing their stories and experience with youngsters eager to learn how you got your job and what it involves. 

Coaching young people is energising, fun and builds the skills of younger members of the team. 

So instead of booking a team awayday, why not run an engaging and energising work experience project?

We’d love to talk to you about involving young people in your business. Do get in touch: abigail@werise.org.uk

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