We’ve spent the last 8 weeks researching the good, the bad and, in the summer of 2020, the plain ugly about work experience. Why? I run Ten Lifestyle Group and we exist to serve the needs and wants of many affluent families in the UK and globally. Before late February this would usually mean organising great family holidays, being able to secure the best seats at top restaurants and tickets for popular shows or events. As the recent pandemic developed however, many families have shared with us a new ‘need/want’ – your anxiety about the upcoming challenge your college or university-aged offspring will face to get a headstart in their work lives.
Whether your children are still in sixth form or at uni or looking to find their first job after university, you are likely to feel concerned right now about the increased risk/reward of action this summer. This September was projected to be the easiest time to find a good graduate job in history; now it will be the toughest, and, as sombre as this may sound, this trend is likely to continue for several years.
A feeling of déjà vu might be creeping in, taking you back in time to the graduate jobs slump of 1990-92, or the smaller slump in 2008/09. You remember the long-term impact that not getting a great start in your work life can have on earning, life chances and self-confidence. Many of you believe this current period – what some have tagged a ‘Graduate Jobs Emergency’ – is likely to be far more challenging than either of those. You therefore want to do your utmost to support your children and help them build their skills, confidence and CV. Work experience is a tried-and-tested way to do just that.
Which is why we’ve researched the current state of play – which aspects of work experience in 2020 work, and which don’t. Not only that – at Ten, we have been running successful work experience programmes for school leavers and undergraduates for over 10 years, and have in the process developed considerable experience in this field.
We’ve spent the last 2 months working hard to create a programme to address the need of developing Employability, together with our friends and partners at the UK’s top Employability Coaching Consulting, Resurgo, and the top platform for online learning, LearnAmp. One part of this was a survey on work experience in the current climate.
What did we learn from our research? While some things remain the same, your children will have to adapt to a very different work placement scenario this lockdown summer.
So what is the same?
1. Work experience is still valuable.
- Future employers value it. It shows commitment, it means the candidate has lost some of the naivety of the ‘first-time job seeker’, has learned valuable skills and has gained useful experience. It allows candidates to present well in applications – on their CV, in their cover letter and in interviews.
- Candidates themselves value it too, when it is well designed. They lose any potential fear of the workplace (over 80% of the candidates we spoke to reported that work experience was ‘more friendly’ than they had expected). Some find it a great confidence booster, too – several of our interviewees who had not been ‘top of school’ found that succeeding in a work placement improved their self-esteem.
2. The characteristics of great work experience remain the same.
- Candidates want and value ‘real’ work far more than shadowing, menial tasks or fake projects. They relish intense, well-planned work projects that result in something being different or newly created. This is, of course, crucial for building an impressive CV, but just as importantly, it builds real skills, confidence and insight into business and their own abilities and passions.
- Good management plays a key role in the success of a work placement – work novices need an inspiring manager who sets clear, accomplishable goals, upskills and provides honest, constructive feedback and coaching. She also needs to offer the right balance of autonomy and direction – not micro-management but equally not what the young people we surveyed described, from their experiences of poor work experience, as “no direction”, “no clear goals” or “no clarity on what was expected of me”.
And what is different?
There are, or rather were, proven ways to obtain work experience. Our research shows that just over half of our members’ children who found work experience did so through a personal connection; 10% obtained placements through school, 25% by applying speculatively to an advertised role, and 15% by targeting companies and applying ‘out of the blue’.
The problem? In today’s COVID-19 world these channels no longer work. Many companies currently have people on Furlough – how could they possibly focus their time and effort on work experience? And if they did, they might not be able to be in the office, while also not knowing how to run work experience virtually.
And there’s more. Companies who used to offer work experience as a way of attracting talent now have no need to do so – employers can see that the ‘war for talent’ to find good graduates has turned into a ‘war for jobs’ between graduates fighting to find a role.
Our research amongst both employers and work experience candidates shows that work experience, when well-structured, managed and designed, is still invaluable for young people.
It can mean the difference between confident future success – success in finding that crucial first job that sets young people on their career path and optimises life chances (including, for those who have this as a priority, their earning potential) – or a cycle of rejection and decreasing self-esteem.
Employability has never been of more importance, yet this summer is the single worst time to find work experience. It will still be possible for a few people with great connections, verve and luck, or for those who successfully pinpoint an industry or company which is prospering, to secure a work placement. Others will forge a different path by creating their own work experience – perhaps by setting up their own micro-business, volunteering or taking on a paid role on the bottom rung in an industry and making the best of it, working gradually up from there.
What is important is to accept the reality of the current challenging climate, to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ and to implement action – encourage your son or daughter to do whatever they can to add to their confidence, experience, skillset and CV. This approach will help prepare them in the coming months and years, for what many believe to be the most competitive graduate job market in history.
Alex Cheatle is Founder and CEO of Ten Lifestyle Group
He is on the founding team of employability accelerator, a programme that supports young people to get the best mix of work experience, career and personal coaching and skills training.