The real Deal: Paul Deal’s award-winning work experience scheme at the BBC

Rewind to the days when your school or university allowed you time off to go in search of exciting work experience. You had secured your dream placement, only to find yourself making endless rounds of tea, or left in a corner reading the paper, bored and counting down the hours. Sound familiar? It is certainly what Paul Deal observed during his years in the newspaper business.

So when Deal, a senior broadcast journalist in the BBC Radio Newsroom, saw a circular encouraging volunteers to set up work experience schemes for their departments, he decided it was the perfect opportunity to learn from the past.

“Too many work experience placements fail because no-one takes ownership of the students, and they get nothing out of it,” explains Deal.

“I felt strongly that if I was going to create a work experience scheme, the students would have my undivided attention.”

Work in progress

The Radio Newsroom employs 75 journalists and is responsible for writing news for radio stations BBC 2, 3, 4 and 5 Live, as well as the digital music station BBC 6 Music, and around 40 regional and local stations. The news team rotate day and night shifts, working three days on, three days off.

As the newsroom is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, everyone is working against the clock in a highly pressurised environment. Deal knew that he would have to come off the news rota if his scheme was going to be successful. His plan was to take on two students for a week-long placement, three times a year.

Applications for work experience placements have to be submitted online and are managed and supervised by Capita as part of the BBC’s outsourced HR services contract with the firm. The online application process is designed to wipe out nepotism by not letting students in through the back door, and Deal says the meritocratic scheme also seeks out the best talent. The work experience placements are aimed at students aged 18 and above as they need “a bit of maturity”, and the majority are undergraduates or graduates.

Success story

Since the scheme’s introduction in January 2004, Deal has not looked back. He has picked up two awards from the National Council for Work Experience (NCWE) for best overall provider of work experience in the UK, and best short-term work experience placement in the public sector.

The NCWE annual awards are designed to recognise and reward employers that are committed to offering exceptional work experience opportunities for students. Heather Collier, manager of the NCWE, explains that, in return, employers get access to an intelligent, motivated, cost-effective labour resource with valuable skills, knowledge and fresh ideas.

By failing to realise this, HR could be missing a trick. Many HR professionals and employers believe that work experience schemes are a waste of time, and too costly to implement. But by investing time in setting up a decent work placement scheme, you could be using it to identify the next generation of talent.

The benefits of setting up a placement scheme quickly outweigh the initial resource outlay. Organisations are increasingly using undergraduate placements as a taster session, enabling both parties to see whether the industry/person is right for them.

“Lots of companies have a talent pipeline from their work experience programmes to their graduate programmes, and this approach can reap rewards in minimising the costs of recruitment and retention,” argues Collier.

So how do you go about creating the ideal scheme without unnecessary risk?

Action plan

First, think about how you can provide the most memorable week for students. This was the question Deal asked himself when first putting his scheme together. He says employers need to provide three key elements: a timetable, plenty of hands-on experience, and the opportunity to observe only the very best of what is going on.

Before the students arrive, Deal prepares them by sending out a detailed handbook and a questionnaire. He asks them what areas of the BBC they are particularly interested in seeing whether they have any role models they especially want to meet, such as newsreaders or top correspondents what they hope to achieve what they most want to learn and what they see themselves doing in future. He then tailors a daily timetable based on their answers so that students immediately feel part of the game.

Joanne McCabe, who was recently taken under Deal’s wing on a placement, said his scheme put other media placements to shame, and that her time at the BBC generated genuinely useful contacts. She believes that her week in the Radio Newsroom taught her more than her entire postgraduate broadcast journalism course.

“Nothing can compare to actually getting into the workplace and seeing broadcast journalists in action,” she says. “Seeing the national news go out on television a few feet away, while editing clips from an interview on 5 Live that morning, was a fantastic experience.”

She adds that the experience gained will affect her future career decisions.

Deal’s success has attracted the interest of BBC chiefs, and he is now involved in spreading best practice in work experience across the whole of BBC News. But he is by no means finished.

Deal now wants to improve access for applicants from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds, and his recommendation of a hardship fund to help students who live a long distance from BBC Television Centre has been accepted.

Both the BBC and budding journalists will continue to benefit from his enthusiasm and commitment.

How employers can benefit

  • Students may be available at times of the year when organisations are in need of an extra pair of hands, allowing temporary staff shortages to be overcome at low cost.
  • Projects can be undertaken that would otherwise take valuable time away from full-time employees.
  • Staff can develop supervisory skills by mentoring and monitoring placement students.
  • Recruitment and training costs can be cut by employing placement students when they graduate.
  • Students are loyal brand ambassadors – they tell their friends about the excellent experience they have had, and often want to go back to work there as full-time employees.

Source: NCWE’s Heather Collier

Deal’s top tips for work experience schemes

  • Provide a handbook: All BBC work placement students receive a handbook in advance, making it a less intimidating place for new arrivals. The handbook includes details of how to get there, transport links, disability allowances and Deal’s photo, so that students know who they are going to be meeting.
  • Timetable: Construct a daily programme around your students’ needs using feedback they have sent in advance. The first day at the BBC includes meeting the editor and rest of the team, and the last concludes with a one-to-one debrief of the week, where students receive positive criticism and feedback.
  • Hands-on experience: In the Radio Newsroom, students receive intensive coaching to enable them to take part as fully and usefully as possible. They have the chance to write stories and are given practical advice on how to write for broadcast and edit, and voice training. In most cases, their stories are read out on air.
  • Observation: Students are able to observe the most exciting elements of the job – for example, sitting in the studio while a top presenter is live on air.

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