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How to Organise Successful Work Experience

Recently, we’ve taken to the keyboard to write about work experience, including ways it is important for students as well as how schools can help source top-notch placements for their student body. In this blog, we turn to the employer.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely to be already sold on the benefits of work experience and, through your contacts, you probably have school or college students eager to spend a week or so at your premises.

Some careful planning can make the difference between OK work experience and great work experience. To help with this, we are going to walk through the practicalities at different stages of the placement, providing advice, tips, and links to more information.

Whether you’re a small, medium or large STEM employer, you’ll discover that organising an effective placement is far from onerous.

Before the work experience placement

Employers often shy away from offering work experience because of concerns about red tape. In fact, the additional work involved is minimal and there are few regulations.

Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are not necessary for staff members working unsupervised with students aged 16 and over. Only staff who regularly supervise those under 16 need a DBS.

Unless the activities are different from the norm, you won’t need any extra insurance – it should be covered by your existing liability policy if your insurer is a member of the Association of British Insurers.

Contrary to popular belief, there are few tasks that a young person cannot do on work experience because of health and safety. That said, you will be responsible for their welfare and should identify any particular risks. You don’t have to carry out a separate risk assessment but if you haven’t employed someone under 18 before you should review your existing assessment. You’ll find information regarding this on the Health and Safety Executive website.

If you take on a student of compulsory participation age for a short time to learn about work, they are not entitled to employment rights and won’t expect to be paid. However, small gestures like contributions towards their travel and lunch expenses do go a long way. Remember that the student won’t be used to working long hours, so make sure that they take breaks and don’t do more than eight hours a day.

If the placement has been arranged by a partner organisation (e.g. a school or college), they will provide support and also check your risk assessment and liability insurance before the placement starts.

The planning

The student’s expectations

The more you tailor the placement to the individual student, the better.

Ideally you’ll have a short meeting with the student before the placement. Otherwise, get in touch by phone or email. This connection will make it easier for them on their first day and you’ll be able to explore their expectations – and manage them if necessary! (Alternatively, the placement organiser – if there is one – can act as a go-between.) Is there something the student wants to observe or try? Do they need certain experiences for a course they want to do?

Ask the student to send you a CV. This will make them feel as though it’s a real job and will give you some background information.

Your expectations

Make it clear that you’ll treat the student as an employee. Let them know what they should wear, what time they will start, where they need to go and who they will report to on their first day. Give them a number to ring in case of emergencies. If necessary, address any issues around health and safety and/or confidentiality.

Explain that you expect them to have a willing and positive attitude and to be respectful of others.

Your employees

Your staff can make or break the placement; involvement will provide them with a great development opportunity but make sure you address any concerns they may have about their workload, scheduling etc. All the staff involved must be fully briefed and on board. If yours is small organisation, the key roles below may be merged.

A coordinator is needed as a link between various parts of the organisation and the student’s school or college. The designated supervisor will be more involved with the student. This is someone who will help them settle in and provide them with feedback. You could also have a mentor or buddy – perhaps a junior member of staff doing the job that interests the young person.

Be aware of gender and other stereotypes – try not to reinforce these at any stage. Aim to connect the student with inspirational, friendly and approachable role models.

The schedule of activities

You’ll need to plan an outline of what the student will do and when. Suitable activities will vary, widely depending on the nature of your organisation and the young person’s needs. There may be some constraints to do with competence, confidentiality, timescales and more, but here are some pointers.

  • Provide variety – this will maintain the student’s interest and expose them to a range of roles and activities. One way of doing this is for them to spend time in different sections and departments.
  • Where possible, give them hands-on tasks.
  • Shadowing can provide valuable insights, especially when combined with the opportunity to ask questions.
  • The student is more likely to be engaged if they are given responsibility for a specific project – this could be anything from a survey to updating the organisation’s web pages. The project could culminate in a report or presentation.
  • Think about whether there’s something the student can teach your staff. They may be able to offer a fresh perspective on modern communication, for instance.
  • Invite the student to meetings or events.
  • Make links where possible with the subjects the student is studying or intends to study.

Induction

This will set the scene and make the student feel welcome. You should cover:

  • who to get in touch with if there are problems
  • health and safety (this is a legal requirement); include the location of first aid equipment, fire procedures, and information on particular risks
  • a brief introduction to the organisation – its products, organisation, history and more
  • an introduction to key members of staff (explain that it’s ok if they don’t remember everyone’s names)
  • a tour of the premises – the toilets and kitchen/canteen, as well as labs, computer suites, workshops etc.

During the work experience placement

You may remember what it’s like to do work experience yourself. It can be daunting, so do your best to make the student feel relaxed. Having said that, all young people are different. Some are confident, others quiet. Some are very able, others need direction.

Encourage the student to ask questions and make suggestions. Treat them as you would a new member of staff but remember their age. Shaking hands with people, saying “morning” and working a longer day may be alien to them! Don’t assume that they will understand the terminology you use on a daily basis.

Ask the student to keep a log where they state their goals, jot down what they have done or observed and note what they have learned. The supervisor can use this to provide regular feedback.

At the end of the work experience placement

Take time to review the placement and give summative feedback. Look at the student’s log. Have they achieved their goals? How do they think they’ve performed? What have been the highlights? What transferable skills have they developed? What challenges have they faced and how did they cope? Has the experience confirmed any career ideas or changed them?

Offer further support if possible. You could help the student update their CV, prepare for interviews or provide a reference. Encourage them to stay in touch. Mention any opportunities there could be at your organisation, such as for an apprenticeship or summer job.

On the last day, gather together the people involved to celebrate the student’s success and applaud everyone’s contribution. Perhaps make some kind of a presentation – a simple certificate can mean a lot.

Ask the student for feedback on your provision in addition to holding a debriefing session with the staff involved. What went well and not so well from their various points of view? What could be improved? Also discuss these issues with any partners.

Find out more

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) runs the Learning to Work campaign and has produced general guidance in Making Work Experience Work: Top Tips for Employers, which you can find here.

The Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University has written a few guides on STEM placements and and examples of them. Although written a few years ago, they make interesting reading.

Health Education England has produced a toolkit – More Than Photocopying. This is aimed at NHS employers but the information is applicable to other STEM employers.

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Don’t underestimate the impact you can have. Aim to inspire but if the student has a change of heart, this is a good thing as they will have discovered the easy way that a career isn’t for them.

Work experience is something a young person is likely to remember all their lives and can change their future direction, so it’s important to get it right.

Debbie Steel

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