Skip to main content

What businesses want from employees is changing. So, work experience must change too.

06 Mar 2024

Two former education secretaries argue for the reinvention of work experience to close the skills gap and the disadvantage gap.

Baroness Morgan of Cotes
Lord Blunkett

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 solely a one-off event.

There is a strong foundation to build on. Thanks to the hard work of businesses in many parts of the country (but not all), 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 believe 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 and 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 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. 

‘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 the country 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 a rigid view of two weeks of work experience, which has disappeared in too many secondary schools. Instead, there needs to be an ongoing, meaningful relationship with schools and colleges, capturing imaginations 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, focussing on the skills that 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 that 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. 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.

This article first appeared on the Schools Week website, Wed 6 March 2024.

Reinventing Work Experience

Read a blog from our Industry and Work Experience Lead, Zoe Healey, about what reinventing work experience means for all involved.

Learn more