Brain Food: Crash course in... Work Experience

There's a shortage of good candidates at the bottom end of your organisation. Those you get have a completely warped view of what you do. Time to offer work experience placements?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Where is help needed? List suitable tasks and consider how quickly they can be learned. Pick jobs that your own people don't have time to do; alternatively, an undergraduate or graduate could tackle an assignment requiring expertise you don't have. Angela Barron, an adviser to the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, says: 'Above all, make sure it's meaningful.

Even a 14-year-old will see when they are just filling in because you've nothing worthwhile for them to do.'

Avoid exploitation. The acid test of whether you're offering a leg-up or gaining cheap labour is whether the role needs to be filled permanently.

Schoolchildren are not usually paid for work experience, but older students often are. The reward should reflect the balance between their contribution to your organisation and the amount of training you're providing.

Plan ahead. 'Spend time working out the logistics,' advises Charlie Holland, deputy director of Shell Technology Enterprise Programme, which places university students on bespoke 12-week projects with small businesses.

'Make sure there is someone to monitor and supervise them. The first two weeks are the most crucial, when the student is finding their feet.'

Look out for talent. Work experience may help recruitment. 'If you have a positive experience at 15, you are far more likely to consider that career later on, and work experience can also shift perceptions of your sector,' says Paul Poulter, CEO of Trident Trust, which places 135,000 pupils a year in work experience programmes. Adds Holland: 'Keep in touch when they go back to their studies. You could offer the chance to come back during vacations.'

Give feedback. Tell your work experience students how they've done, but be sensitive. 'Accentuate the positive, because it increases self-esteem and confidence,' says Poulter. 'If you're too negative, it can have exactly the opposite effect.'

Spell out the rules. It's vital that students understand what is expected of them in terms of dress code, behaviour, punctuality, etc. 'The employer should have the right to set whatever standards they want. Youngsters often have no understanding that there is a set of behaviours they'll have to observe at work,' says Poulter. An interview can make expectations clear.

Be aware of the risks. Work experience isn't a high-risk undertaking, but sort insurance and health and safety issues. If you're concerned about confidentiality, says Holland, ask your students to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Do say: 'The firm will be hosting a number of students on work experience next month. Please let HR know if you have tasks where they could contribute.'

Don't say: 'Cancel that job ad. I've found some gullible students who'll work for free.'

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