By David Morgan, Chief Executive, Career Development Institute
Posted Mon 3 April 2023 - 13:42

Anyone who went to school in the seventies and eighties like I did, will probably remember their mandatory one-week work experience. I spent mine in the office of the local newspaper, writing wedding summaries, the occasional obituary and, on a good day, going to court to report on minor misdemeanours. The main upshot was that I no longer wanted to pursue a career as a journalist.

At university, I chose a business studies course that included a placement year, as I felt that gaining experience of the workplace would make me more employable. I spent my year in the finance department of the local NHS hospital and all it confirmed was what I already knew – I didn’t want to work in the public sector or in accountancy.

Everyone’s experiences will be unique and offer different value, but my experiences highlight the upside and downside of work experience. I got experience in two different workplaces, even if ultimately I decided I didn’t want to follow either of them, I learned how to behave in an office environment, and it reinforced my view that my future would be in business in some form.

But there was so much more I could have learned if the approach had focused on broader experiences of work rather than just work experience. At the UK Government Education Select Committee inquiry into careers provision in schools, work experience came up repeatedly. The Labour Party are also talking about mandatory work experience for every young person. While these are well intentioned, the careers profession has moved on and recognises there are limitations to such an approach.

Where a young person has a clear idea of a future career they’d like to follow, work experience can be valuable in helping them understand the realities of being in that role – much like my brief foray into journalism. But where such experiences are mandatory, young people can often be pushed into any work experience, gaining little or nothing from it – such as my university experience where I’d expressed no desire to work in finance or the public sector and just had to get a placement.

While experiences of work may include a period of work experience, to learn about a role in more depth, there are many other ways to bring in the workplace, such as:

  • inviting people working in different roles to come into school or college to give talks, either as part of assemblies, careers sessions or during classroom teaching to link the curriculum to careers. Organisations such as Education & Employers can connect you to volunteer speakers in your area
  • where people can’t come into your organisation, using videos of people talking about their jobs can lead to discussion about positive and negative aspects of the roles for students
  • class visits to employer premises where they are walked through the different roles and how people work
  • organising job shadowing, so young people can spend a day seeing how someone operates in their job
  • inviting employees from different organisations to join careers activities such as practice interviews and CV reviews, giving their perspective on what is needed in roles like theirs. These can be parents of students or local connections

Ultimately the aim is to give young people insight into the reality and opportunity of as many different roles as possible. By the time students are reaching the end of their time at school, they can have narrowed perspectives of the jobs they’d like to do. Engaging them in wider experiences of the workplace throughout their school or college experience can help them realise whether a chosen profession is right for them, as well as open up new possibilities.

So it’s not really work experience vs. experiences of work. It’s enabling a range of experiences of work, including work experience where it is meaningful.

David Morgan

The CDI is the professional body for those working in all aspects of career development. To learn more about the work of the CDI, please visit our website.

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