Learning Curve: Managing work experience schemes

Stefan Stern digests the origin, pitfalls and benefits of work experience schemes.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What is it?

Whether in the housing or the jobs market, we all need to take a step on the first rung of the ladder. That is what work experience is for. But that first encounter with a boss and the world of work can have a lasting impact, for good or ill. That is why work experience programmes should not be a thoughtless or improvised process. They should be managed properly if you want a decent outcome for all sides. Filing, photocopying and making tea do not teach you very much about work - except that, if you are unlucky, jobs can be repetitive and boring.

Where did it come from?

Tradesmen have usually served an apprenticeship if they are any good. Medieval guilds required youngsters to learn their trade - steadily, slowly, and carefully. The masterwork proved that you knew what you were doing. Apprentices and trainees have always been exploited, of course. Doing your time was part of getting established. Young footballers had to clean boots and changing rooms. But in the best businesses these early experiences of work led to something more permanent and rewarding. The trouble with some modern work experiences is they lead precisely nowhere.

Where is it going?

Straight into the unflinching beam of the media spotlight. The government had to summon employers in to No 10 recently to clarify that it did not want to encourage exploitative 'workfare' schemes, and instead wanted to give people a positive experience of work. This makes sense. That first taste of working life can get a young hopeful off to a good start. The important thing is to make sure the experience is positive and that real work gets done. That's how you develop the work habit. As the psychologist Fred Herzberg said: if you want people to do a decent job, give them a decent job to do.

Gradient: A steep climb indeed.

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