From education to employment

Help students gain edge after work experience

Chris Rea

After becoming a casualty of lockdown, work experience is well and truly back yet new research shows students are struggling to make the most of the opportunities in front of them. We look at the evidence and what needs to be done.

The national lockdowns of 2020 led to a significant reduction in the volume of work experience opportunities available to young people.

While the Institute of Student Employers reported employers had cut opportunities by 40%, our Early Careers Survey showed just 17% of students had undertaken work experience in 2020/21.

This year work experience is well and truly back. The majority (75%) of respondents to our annual survey of around 5,000 students had undertaken some form of work experience in the last year.

There’s no denying that the sector recognises the value of work experience in helping the employability of young people, so on the surface a return to work experience seems like a good news story. But there’s another factor at play.


What’s interesting about this year’s findings is that a significant proportion of respondents didn’t seem to recognise the value of what they had been doing.

We found the majority of students were struggling to find jobs and the main reason they gave was that it was due to not having the right work experience. However, 80% of those people had actually done some form of work experience in the last 12 months.

Perhaps they didn’t recognise what they had been doing as the kind of work experience employers would want. Perhaps they felt their experience was simply not industry-relevant so therefore useless.

What’s clear is that we need to help students better understand the different types of work experience, the benefits and the importance of transferable skills. 

When is work experience most valuable?

‘Work experience’ isn’t just about undertaking a formal and suitable named ‘internship’ or ‘placement’. All types of work develop skills, attitudes and attributes that employers value.

A part-time job, volunteering, supporting a community project, a side hustle selling things you’ve made or don’t want, all of these things are valuable.

Our Early Careers Survey found students with work experience felt more prepared for work (69%) than those without (56%). Most respondents to the survey agreed that their work experience developed skills, improved career prospects and confirmed career choices.

There are some factors that influence value, however. Those who worked one to six months, in-person or hybrid (as opposed to virtually) and who received payment (unpaid work experience was perceived to hold less value) benefited the most.

A fair wage

It’s worth noting that while the noise around unpaid work experience seems to have subsided, the issue hasn’t gone away.

This year 64% of students said they had worked for free. Unpaid work experience is more common among sixth form and college students, likely because they tend to work for shorter periods. These numbers are pretty consistent with figures we’ve had over the last five years.

While work experience is extremely valuable in launching careers, students should be reminded that this shouldn’t be traded for the basic right to be paid a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. No exclusions to the national minimum wage apply and there is plenty of government guidance on this area.

How can we support students?

We need to reassure students that even if their job or experience isn’t directly related to the industry they would like to enter, it still has value.

It’s an opportunity to develop the generic skills all employers will want, and we often take for granted. Knowing how to communicate with people at different levels, how to behave in a work environment, the importance of time keeping and deadlines, working with others, being adaptable and resilient to change and challenge. The list goes on. Students may even find it opens their eyes to roles or sectors they hadn’t even considered.

Careers advisors can help students make the most of the experiences they have, which includes recognising what they’ve done and translating it into something they can use in job applications and interviews.

As a minimum, we are encouraging students to keep a log of what they’re doing during their experience so they don’t forget. Listing what they feel they’ve achieved at the end can also help, in the context of their best skills and attributes. Casting a positive lens on challenges can also help students identify where they’ve grown and how they problem solve.

In a competitive labour market, work experience can be the ticket to gain that all important edge. It’s up to all of us in the sector to help students make the most of the opportunities in front of them.

By Chris Rea, early careers expert for Prospects at Jisc

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