Trade secrets: Getting the best out of work experience

With the academic year reaching a close, businesses can be assured of an annual deluge of applications from eager students seeking work experience. The challenge for HR is to ensure that senior executives, line managers and the students themselves take the whole thing seriously, because establishing a structured work experience scheme can reap handsome dividends, as increasing numbers of organisations have discovered.

Why now?

Demand has never been greater for work experience among students, keen to broaden their skills and to enhance their employability before joining the world of work. Research conducted in 2004 by the University of Manchester careers service showed that, on average, 70% of work experience placements lead to a graduate job offer and, with competition for high-calibre graduates now more intense than ever, the time is right to use a work experience scheme to your advantage.

Getting it right

So, if you are thinking of setting up a work experience placement, how can you ensure that you get the right student for the job?

First, advertise carefully to reach your target audience. University careers services are a good first port of call and most university students will browse their careers service website regularly, especially when looking for work experience, so it can provide an inexpensive starting point to recruit bright, enthusiastic students.

It is important to draft an appropriate job description. This ensures that you will get applicants who are the right fit for the job – those who are genuinely interested in what the placement has to offer and armed with the skills to begin making a contribution to your business quickly.

You also need to decide the duration of the placement. This could be an intensive fortnight spell, a longer internship over several months, or one afternoon a week over the course of a year. It will determine the extent of a student’s duties as well as how fully they might need to be integrated into the workings of your company.

Complying with appropriate anti-discrimination legislation is a must, both in selection procedures and in subsequent working practices. Students should also have a clear contract of employment that sets out working hours, their responsibilities and what is expected of them.

All students undertaking work experience should be paid at least the minimum wage. This both encourages them to take placements seriously and will ensure you maintain diversity in your workforce by attracting a wide range of applicants. In some sectors, such as the media, interns work for free, but that means only those who can afford to work for nothing apply.

Managing the placement

At the beginning of a placement, treat students just as you would other new joiners. Provide them with a job description and a short induction during their first day to ease them into the workplace.

The induction should brief work experience students thoroughly about your company ethos and, in particular, what is expected of them. As part of this, agree goals and objectives for the student so that your colleagues and the students will be clear about what everyone expects to get out of the placement.

During the placement, students should see themselves as an integral part of your team, and should be treated as such by your colleagues. Simple measures, such as taking placement students out to lunch, can be an excellent way to create goodwill and maintain motivation.

Get feedback

Toward the end of a student’s time in your organisation, give them a brief appraisal of their contribution. This does more than just provide them with an overview of their performance – it will also provide you with valuable feedback about your work experience scheme, helping to shape future placements effectively.

One of the most important points to remember is that a good work placement scheme can significantly enhance your corporate branding. Providing students with transferable skills and a positive experience of working life at your organisation will produce ambassadors who will do much to spread positive messages about your business.

Further information

The National Council for Work Experience has developed a quality mark, ‘Excellence in Work Experience’, designed to act as a standard by which employers in the UK can measure their work experience provision.

The quality mark is intended to set a common standard for work experience and to give HR managers the direction they need to offer increased opportunities and take a more strategic view of their relationship with higher education.

To find out more about the quality mark, e-mail: [email protected]

Case study: BP

The key to a successful internship programme is to try to excel every step of the way, says Jane Measures, intern manager at petroleum giant BP.

“We start by identifying the university departments which consistently provide top-class interns and we build relationships with those departments,” she explains. BP also offers an online application process. It awards internships to those who perform best at assessment events.

“We attract students who are interested in more than a good pay package – those who appreciate the opportunities for personal development and training we offer,” adds Measures.

BP organises recruitment events where students can speak to recent interns, and tries to be as flexible as possible about course requirements.

Interns report to trained line managers, and each has a trained mentor to help them network and think through their skills development. BP tends to run internships during the summer holiday, but also offers longer placements for students who prefer a year in industry.

BP’s programme is directly connected to its graduate recruitment targets. Currently, it recruits 50% of its interns into permanent jobs, but aims to increase this to 70%.

Our expert

Liz Rhodes is director of the National Council for Work Experience (NCWE). Her career has spanned the worlds of business, broadcast and the not-for-profit sector. In the 1980s she helped to set up the Prince’s Trust. After a period managing work experience programmes for Shell, she joined the National Centre for Work Experience and became director in 2002, when it joined with Graduate Prospects to become the NCWE. She was awarded an MBE for services to training and education in business.

To find out how far firms will go to ensure new staff understand what they’re getting into, click here

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