Comment: Firms across industry must do better when it comes to offering work experience

In this month’s column, Dr Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive of EngineeringUK, looks at the changing landscape of work experience and the role it plays in securing the future workforce.

This month the UK is celebrating National Work Experience Week (24 to 28 April). Work experience provides tangible benefits for both young people and employers, however, not enough young people have access to high quality work experience opportunities and we need to change this.

The school-to-work transition can be a challenging time for young people, especially if they haven’t had any experience of the workplace or the chance to explore career opportunities available to them. Equally, it can present challenges for businesses who employ young people with very limited experience of the working world. Work experience is an important part of bridging this gap. It not only gives young people a taste of the world of work, but it also helps them to develop essential skills, motivation and confidence.

Despite the many benefits of work experience, there are simply not enough young people doing it. The ‘Work Experience For All’ report by Speakers for schools explores the impacts of work experience on young people’s outcomes, and it found that only a third of teenagers aged 16 to 18 had work experience, and only half of 14 to 16 year olds did. According to Wellcome’s 2016 and 2019 Science Education Trackers, 27% of year 10 to 13 students wanted to do a STEM-related work experience but were unable to.

Particularly concerning, are the underlying inequalities which suggest that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are missing out on work experience. The Speakers for schools’ ‘International work experience practices’ report found that students often rely on their parents’ social and professional networks to help secure placements, which exacerbates unequal opportunities. In fact, students from independent schools are twice as likely to have done multiple work placements compared to their state-educated peers and students with special educational needs and disabilities in mainstream schools are less likely to have received work experience. This is one of reasons why it’s really important for schools to have relationships with employers, so they can support young people with finding placements. However, research from The Federation of Small Businesses found that only 4% of small businesses have a relationship with a school.

When it comes to the engineering sector and securing the skilled workforce for the future, we need to take the importance of work experience more seriously and grow the opportunities available to young people.

Although traditional face to face work experience is highly valuable for young people and employers, it can present issues for young people who don’t live close to the areas where placements are being offered, or for employers that have adopted a hybrid working model and where employees might not be at their workplace every day. During the pandemic and as the world transitioned to hybrid ways of working, we realised that work experience needed to do the same. EngineeringUK led a virtual working group to find ways to support our corporate members with transitioning their work experience offer from traditional to virtual and we partnered with the Careers & Enterprise Company to produce a microsite. This microsite provides encouragement and step-by-step resources for employers looking to offer virtual work experience – please do take a look if this is something that you are considering.

To truly combat the inequalities young people face with work experience, we will need the government to take action. The mandatory duty to offer work experience in England was removed in 2011; while the Gatsby Careers Benchmarks that are highly influential in English schools do include providing students with first-hand experiences of work, but this could be covered by workplace visits. There are various ways in which businesses and industry are supported to connect with schools, such as through Local Enterprise Partnerships, Institutes of Technology or Careers Hubs, but coverage and effectiveness is patchy where it should be consistent and guaranteed across the UK.

I worry that there is also significant risk to current levels of work experience. Last year EngineeringUK and Make UK published a report ‘Unlocking talent: Ensuring T Levels deliver the workforce of the future’ – highlighting the benefits of T Levels for businesses in England who are desperate for more young skilled workers. We welcome T Levels as a new, technical route designed as an alternative to A Levels for 16 to 19 year olds and they include a 45 to 50 day industry placement. We estimate that T Levels in engineering, manufacturing, technological and digital skills could need as many as 43,500 industry placements by 2024/25. It is so important that employers continue to offer work experience for students alongside T level placements but I worry that this does take a lot of commitment and urge industry to make this investment in their and young people’s futures. And please reach out to us if you think there are ways we can help.

We must all work together to ensure young people across the UK have access to good quality work experience that enable and inspire them to pursue careers in engineering and technology.

Dr Hilary Leevers is the Chief Executive of EngineeringUK