How to solve a problem like work experience

Q&A: Serial entrepreneur Sherry Coutu's Workfinder app matches young people and employers.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 14 Nov 2017

Work experience is supposed to be a vital bridge between the worlds of education and employment, connecting businesses to talent and helping young people figure out what they want to do with their lives. In practice, it’s often little more than an extended lesson in tea-making, data entry and envelope stamping.

Enough is enough, says serial entrepreneur and investor Sherry Coutu. The Canadian-born web pioneer made her name in the 90s as founder of Interactive Investor, and has since become one of the UK’s most successful angels, backing such big bets as Lovefilm (acquired by Amazon in 2011) and Zoopla. Since 2015, she has focused her efforts on philanthropic ventures, most notably founders4schools, which brings entrepreneurs into the classroom.

Coutu’s latest venture is Workfinder, a mobile app that matches secondary school pupils with local businesses, allowing for meaningful work experience and for students to share feedback with their peers. Here’s what she had to say about it.

MT: Where did the idea for Workfinder come from?

Coutu: The idea for this came three years ago, from a young girl called Maitri who was doing a paid internship with founders4schools. We asked her what experience she had before she came to us, and she said she'd worked for a large company and had a terrible time. She said she wished there was something like TripAdvisor for work experience so she could share what she thought, and I said there should be an app for that. I was being a bit flippant, but then it was like, no, there really should be an app for that.   

We interviewed hundreds of students like her. Seeing the issues, what students like her were being put through – it made me angry. It’s never really a good idea to make an entrepreneur angry. Rather than just being a grump about it, I decided to make a solution, and that’s what we’ve done.

MT: What’s wrong with work experience as it is?

Coutu: In some parts of the country, only 8% of students get any work experience, let alone meaningful experience. Yet research shows that 80% of employers value work experience more than a university degree. That’s a wrong that must be righted, and not doing it is contributing to the massive skills crisis in this country.

The way most people currently get work experience is when a parent asks a contact of theirs on behalf of their child. That’s fine when parents are engaged, but it’s not fine when the parents have never worked or are drug addicts.

I came from a lumber town in Canada, and my parents didn’t encourage me. They weren’t interested in me going to university, and the idea of starting my own business was cloud cuckoo land. So this really tugs. For all those millions of children who are hungry and ambitious, why not give them something more working at a check-out counter in a supermarket?

MT: That wouldn’t qualify as meaningful experience then?

Coutu: We’ve discovered that meaningful work experience is project-based and gives people a chance to use their brains. I’ve got nothing against check-out counters as one of the tasters that children can have to explore what’s right for them, and it may be right for some people. But it may be they should be working at DeepMind or ARM or Abcam. That’s why it’s important for them to get 140 hours of experience in four different places by the age of 18.

MT: At founders4schools, you’ve tried to engage kids with less obvious role models - in that instance entrepreneurs. Is Workfinder also looking beyond the usual corporate candidates?

Coutu: The current system has historically focused only on the large, shrinking companies in our economy. That’s just criminal – 100% of net new jobs come from SMEs that are growing. Why do we keep recommending these dinosaurs when there are so many fabulous and really interesting companies to work for?

Our goal is for every single child between 16 and 18 to get meaningful work experience, and for that we need SMEs as well as large businesses.

MT: How does Workfinder make life easier for employers?

Coutu: Historically, the education system has relied on human beings having face to face conversations with employers so they can structure the week. It’s actually very expensive to do that – we’re all very busy. We use machine learning to create briefings on how to structure meaningful work experience weeks, building on all the others that have gone before.

You can also load things like safety checks and employer liability insurance status onto our system, which means they don’t have to be done again. The firms on our database usually have at least 10 people working for them, so work experience doesn’t hurt. It usually helps.

MT: How have you found the switch from profit-making to philanthropic ventures?

Coutu: I’m doing very similar things, just solving slightly different problems. With Interactive Investors, I’d been looking for a mortgage online and couldn’t believe I was being forced to use paper. It made me angry, so I put it online.  

With Workfinder - I’ve got three children, 18, 17 and 14. If you cast your mind back three years ago, it  was just the time they were being urged to explore the world of work at school, and I couldn’t believe the way the industry was going about introducing them to the world of work. If nobody else is solving this problem and you think you can, you put together a team and solve it.

We’ve tested this over the last year on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the impact has been electric. You can see their confidence skyrocket after a few meaningful tasks they didn’t think they could do, when they find out they can. 

Read next: Has the graduate milkround gone sour?


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