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Why work experience matters

Date: 26 Apr

When I was a teenager, growing up in Tamworth in the 80s, it was made pretty clear to me that I was expected to get a part-time job and start paying for the things that I wanted in life: stone-washed jeans, blue mascara, Wet Wet Wet albums…!  My first job was as a silver service waitress, my sister worked on a market stall.  When it came to the interview for my first proper job – a management trainee scheme at a department store – I could cite examples of working with the public, having to be reliable, taking responsibility, problem solving. Most of my peers would have been able to do the same.


You might not know the numbers, but I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that the numbers of young people getting work experience while still studying has declined. In fact, it’s reduced from 43% in 1997 to 21% in 2017.  The reasons for this are complex, but the impact is obvious.  Opportunities to gain the confidence and skills that come from being in a place of work are just not available to the majority.


Crucially, young people also have little opportunity to test out different work places to see if they are a good ‘fit’ for them. How do they know if they like working with people or on their own?  If they want to work in an office or on the road?  School and college experiences are not always the best indicator of future work preferences.


And with fewer real work-based examples offered in interviews, employers are often having to base their hiring decisions on school/university activities alone and take on the training themselves.  It’s an increased risk and burden for them.


A recent study by the Institute of Student Employers highlighted a very basic result of this lack of exposure to work environments. Employers are four times more likely to say that apprentices aren’t dressing appropriately for work compared to graduates. The level of pastoral support that is being given in the workplace is increasing – a positive thing – but imagine what could be achieved in that time if ongoing discussions about dress code weren’t part of it.


It’s not all bad news though. The same study showed that there are a range of skills where apprentices score as highly as graduates (although these still might not be as prevalent as employers would like). But clearly as careers leads, businesses and Enterprise Advisers, we can help support young people by giving them as much exposure to the world of work as possible.


I was one of the lucky ones. By the time I got that job in the department store, I already knew how to fit into a work environment by wearing the right kind of clothes. I never learned to keep quiet about liking Wet Wet Wet though!

Sarah Hathaway, Enterprise Adviser representative for Careers Hub Cornwall & Isles of Scilly