Ruth Gilbert, Chief Executive, the Career Colleges Trust

The DfE states that work experience must be 'meaningful' - but what exactly is this and is it achievable for a 14, 15 or 16 year old?

I absolutely believe it is, but we need to move away from the misconceptions that so often blight the work experience concept.

Too many people imagine work experience to be something you do in an office for one or two weeks, as well as believing that SMEs can't or won't engage as they don't have the resource.

It's crucial that such myths are dispelled and we can do this by highlighting not only what can be done to offer young people experience of work – but what actually is being done.

Many Further Education colleges have excellent links with local industry. Businesses are often familiar with the programmes being taught at the local college and indeed, the people teaching them. And, encouragingly, there has been a move to project-based learning in recent years by many colleges and this has been of huge benefit to the students.

Live project briefs, preferably commissions, are a great way to engage young people in the real work of work. Whether this is designing an app, catering for an event or supporting a community event – such activities are hugely valuable for students and puts the theory they are learning into a real-life context.

How will a learner know if they really like catering without working in a busy kitchen at peak time and seeing if the pressure works for them? Of course they need some training to flourish and not be frightened off, but work shadowing plays a huge part in this and is meaningful experience.

For employers, there is real benefit in offering opportunities to the local community. It can help secure their future workforce and ultimately allow them to identify potential talent early on. It also gives existing members of staff the chance to develop some of their own skills in terms of mentoring and coaching young people.

In the case of SMEs, they need to feel they are getting something back and concierge-style services to help them through peaks in their work is a great way to do this. Many FE colleges do it already.

However, what many FE college struggle with is enabling learners to take up opportunities arising at short notice. In most cases, timetabling just doesn't allow it and students miss out on what could be a very valuable experience.

Another barrier to making work experience meaningful is the fact that it is rarely embedded into the programme of study and as a result, is rarely well supported. It can count towards learning aims and study programme hours, but the classification of 'authorised absence' on registers commonly reflects the lack of integration within the curriculum.

In line with EFA funding guidance for Study Programmes, Ofsted looks to see if work experience is appropriately planned to maximise benefit to the student and effectiveness of preparation for employment.

Learning in FE should always be put into the context of a career and progression, in which the student's current course is a stepping stone. In reality, a college induction should really be an 'induction to industry and career opportunities.' Students need support to identify their strengths and work to goals, such as build skills and confidence to tackle situations.

Research undertaken by Careers Lab shows that a young person is five times less likely to become NEET on leaving education if they have four or more interactions with employers during their time at school/college.

With almost one million young people classified as NEET, there is a pressing need to create simple ways for colleges to engage with people in work to create such 'interactions'.

The fact is, not enough young people are entering the industries in which the skills shortages are so evident. They are unaware of where the job opportunities exist and lack of quality careers education is partly to blame.

Without knowing about the potential opportunities available, young people are unable to make informed decisions about their career pathway early enough in in their education. This can limit their options and put them on a track which they find unsuitable and uninspiring.

Colleges need to counteract this by ensuring that their students have access to employers and that engagement with businesses goes above and beyond the odd placement.

Our Career Colleges work alongside employers on curriculum development and delivery, whilst providing students with real-life projects, placements and work opportunities.

For example, at Hugh Baird's Career College's in Liverpool, staff and students successfully bid to cater for a regional event. Students are also offered opportunities to cover holiday/ sickness absence of staff by local restauranteurs engaged with the college.

At Bromley College's Hospitality, Food and Enterprise Career College, students catered for 200 people at an event, just weeks into their course. Many of these students were only 14 years old – and an opportunity like this not only built their confidence but also provided them with realistic expectations of the industry.

Such active employer engagement is not limited to examples in catering, and is of benefit to everyone and reflects the real meaning of work experience – which is certainly achievable for young people. It is also simply vital for securing a quality future workforce across all industries.

Ruth Gilbert is Chief Executive of the Career Colleges Trust

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