Should we focus on providing young people with “experience of work” not “work experience”?

The UK labour market is challenging for young people…

The recent report from EY, in association with the EY Foundation clearly set out the challenges young people in the UK face in gaining entry to the workforce. It is true that the level of youth unemployment in the UK compares relatively well to that in most other countries in Europe. Yes the UK youth unemployment rate is almost double that in Germany and above that the Netherlands, but it is significantly lower than the rates seen in France, Italy and Spain. Furthermore, since 2011 – a year that saw unemployment peak in most European countries – levels of youth unemployment in the UK have recorded one of the biggest falls anywhere in Europe.


It is nevertheless the case that the UK unemployment rate for people aged 16-to-24 is relatively high compared to other age groups.


…but there is no lack of ambition and drive…

This research and the engagement I have with young people leaves me in no doubt that young people are fully aware of the challenges the labour market poses and are keen to do what they can to improve their prospects. In this context, experiences of work are highly valued. They can provide confidence and a sense of achievement. Young people tell us that they would like more opportunities to meet employers, to learn more from them, and to understand the workplace and what their own place in it might be.

…and demand should not be a problem…

The demand for skills is rising fast. As many as 91% of employers face recruitment problems today[1] – while the number of businesses “not confident” that there will be enough people available in the future to fill high-skilled jobs has reached an all-time high of 69% by one count.[2] Demand for key skills is only set to grow – notwithstanding poor growth projections for the UK economy in the wake of the EU referendum. In the management profession alone, the UK is forecast to need 1.9m new managers by 2024.[3]

There is a direct correlation between employer interactions with young people while they are still in school and their prospects. According to the Education and Employers Taskforce,[4] the number of contacts with an employer such as careers talks or work experience that a young person gets in school (between the ages of 14 and 19) can increase their confidence to achieve career goals, reduce their the likelihood of becoming NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) (at 19-24) and improve their salaried earnings. This clearly points towards the tangible actions that employers can take to improve their chances of recruiting a more highly skilled workforce.

…so what is going on?

Young people want to work and employers need skills. Why are supply and demand not meeting as effectively as they could? I continue to be surprised and excited by the large number of employers across the country doing great things for young people and offering inspiring experiences of work. I also know that many schools do an excellent job in creating these opportunities for their students.

In order to understand the situation in more detail, the EY Foundation and the CMI commissioned a survey of 1,510 16 to 21 year olds from across the UK about their views and experiences of work. The results provide fresh insights and pragmatic suggestions to help strengthen the connections between schools and the workplace. The EYF and CMI report provides detailed analysis and recommendations on a range of areas, I focus solely on work experience in this blog but the report covers a broader scope of issues.

Work experience isn’t working…

Young people need more experiences of work and chances to develop key skills.

  • While most young people have had some experience of work, 56% think it’s difficult to get the sort of experience needed to get a job they want. 88% call on employers to offer more work experience.
  • It appears that work experience through schools is becoming rarer, having been made non-compulsory – only 51% of 16 to 18 year olds say their school offers work experience, compared to 64% of those now aged 19-21. This may jeopardise the opportunities available to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The career choices that young people make are being influenced by parents and teachers, who are imperfect sources of information.

  • Parents/carers are by far the most common sources of advice on jobs and careers, with employers much less prominent: only 56% of young people say that employers have come into their school to talk about opportunities.

 A lack of knowledge about the jobs market risks undermining young people’s ambitions. This is worse for some regions or for young people from poorer backgrounds.

  • One in three don’t feel confident about getting a job in the next couple of years.
  • Young people from lower socioeconomic groups are considerably more likely than their peers to lack confidence in getting a job locally (33% compared to 25%).
  • 35% of young people do not know about employers and jobs in their local area and, perhaps as a result, 31% don’t think they can find a job (or a new job) in the area they live.

…and is often not a great experience…

There are areas where the quality of work experience can clearly be improved upon. 56% of young people say they weren’t given training while on work experience, 49% weren’t told what skills they would need to the get a job in the organisation, and 25% didn’t even receive feedback on how they performed. Only 14% of young people who have done work experience were offered a job at the end.

…but young people value their experiences of work and recognise the benefits

  • The majority of young people are positive about work experience and the benefits to them. This includes improved confidence (65%), improved teamwork and communications skills (63%), and a sense of achievement (61%).
  • 88% of young people say that employers need to offer more work experience – not least because they recognise that it is important to employers when it comes to recruitment (also 88%).

…and say that work experience helps them know what skills employers are after ..

Young people recognise the emphasis that employers place on practical skills, rather than just qualifications. They consider organisational skills (68%) and communication skills (65%) as very important to employers, compared to only 35% who say exam results are very important.

…but they need better work experience as they aren’t always confident in their abilities

However, young people are not very confident in their communication and leadership skills. Only 25% think they are very good at communicating what they think or taking initiative. Even fewer say they are very good at talking in front of a group of people (15%) or getting people to work together (14%). Young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are even less likely than their peers to think they are good at talking in front of a group of people (38% vs 50%), or motivating other people (47% vs 54%).

Time for a new approach to work experience…

In order to improve the transition from school to the workplace, it is clear that young people need the right information and the right experiences to make the right choices about their future. Young people shouldn’t have to get lucky when it comes to getting access to good opportunities.

We need greater levels of collaboration between educators, parents/carers, government and employers, working in joined-up ways across the regions to create change that benefits young people, employers and the UK economy in terms of their skills agenda.

…which provides a real “experience of work” whatever form it takes.

We should be less concerned about sending young people off to a place of work for a week and much more concerned with ensuring that young people learn more about the world of work every year from 11-18 as part of a new school-to-work curriculum. The challenge is for employers and educators to transform the way that they engage with each other, so that every young person, in every school and college across the UK is able to benefit from a true experience of work. This will build on the huge amounts of activity already in place but with the aim of creating an overall framework and clear expectations as to what young people can expect over their school career in terms of their experience of work.

These experiences of work could mean employer-speaking programmes in schools, workplace visits, or mentoring schemes that increase in duration over time, and lead up to extended work placements in the final years of school. Fundamental to this approach is to consolidate the excellent work done by many schools and employers now, which can be ad hoc or location-dependent, and instead create a national high-quality curriculum of learning and experiences of work, locally delivered, over every young person’s school career.

This new school-to-work curriculum will require leadership from government and employer bodies, and closer collaboration between schools and employers to deliver it. It’s also vital to involve parents/carers who are significant influences on young people’s experiences and choices, but often need support to understand all the opportunities that are available to their children, which extend beyond their own experiences of the workplace.

By its nature, work experience for young people will normally be delivered locally and it seems likely that a key part of matching skills to opportunities is a good awareness of local and regional economies. With the devolution of more and more decisions over economic policy to cities and regions in the UK, it is logical to seek to include experience of work programmes under this umbrella.

[1] National Management Salary Survey 2016, XpertHR/CMI, May 2016

[2] CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey (July 2016)

[3] UKCES Working Futures 2014-2024, April 2016

[4] It’s Who You Meet: why employer contacts at school make a difference to the employment prospects of young adults, Dr Anthony Mann, Director of Research and Policy, Education and Employers Taskforce (February 2012)

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