Let's accept the fact; work experience has a pretty poor reputation. Normally the phrase is associated with one or two weeks for a young person sitting in an office doing basic clerical tasks such as photocopying and making the tea. This needn't and shouldn't be the case.
The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has identified the lack of work experience as a major factor contributing to the structural elements of youth unemployment and Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg recently acknowledged that there is currently a "massive gap in this country between the world of education and the world of work". It is time that this recognition is converted into positive activity by companies, schools and government working together to redefine work experience.
The UK Commission has identified that there needs to be a much a broader definition of work experience to include visits, access to role models, mentored projects, mock interviews and relevant hands-on activities. This is helpful in that it moves away from the idea that work experience is only about giving young people specific office skills. The truth is that work experience should be giving students a much wider set of benefits. Firstly work experience should be providing awareness which includes an understanding of the business that they are working in, the range of activities that take place within that business, the skills and qualifications that those activities require and a good understanding of the different jobs and careers that are available within the activities of the company. Secondly work experience is important for developing skills, but not specific skills, but rather soft skills such as time management, project management, team work and leadership, communications and presentations skills.
The way forward is not hard to see, there are many good examples of work experience weeks that meet these objectives being run by forward thinking companies, and project based schemes such as EDT's own Go4SET and EES provide excellent opportunities for high quality work experience at school age. In particular the Industrial Cadets initiative launched by the Prince of Wales this year provides an experience which meets the criteria for effective work experience. Industrial Cadets enables students as young as 12 to get a perspective of the world of work in their local industries by undertaking projects and activities mentored by employees in those industries. One of the first Industrial Cadets activities to be completed this year took place in Stoke and involved a consortium of local businesses large and small. The experience profoundly affected the young people aged 13 and 14 from the two local schools that took part who made comments such as:
"I really enjoyed doing the Industrial Cadets programme as it allowed me to explore the world of work. I think I would like to get a job in Engineering and Manufacturing"
"In doing Industrial Cadets I feel that I have developed my skills in working in a team and become more confident in myself"
"This experience has given us a chance to see what scientists actually do"
"Talking and presenting to the assessors has helped to improve our confidence"
"Working on this project has taught us to work as a team, problem-solve, listen to others, and work with new people. The project has helped us to see science outside of the classroom"
I am convinced that experiences like Industrial Cadets must become commonplace in our schools if we are to familiarise pupils with the opportunities that exist and to encourage them to study the subjects that will equip them for those careers. The links between local industry and schools must be actively developed to close the gap between education and the workplace. Initiatives can then flourish to allow students to understand their local industries and guide their careers towards the opportunities that those industries can provide.