The dog days of summer are a strange time in most companies. Staff, customers, and suppliers go on holiday, work slows in many industries, and productivity often slides. And the summer months also see students appearing in the workplace, arriving for work experience placements to get a taste of working life.
Too often, this young talent is left to do the photocopying, make the tea, or complete boring tasks no one else likes. And SMEs are among the worst at taking on and making the most of youngsters, typically blaming three things – time, money, and manpower. Smaller employers often feel they can ill afford to redeploy staff to train juniors, even temporarily. Work experience is perceived by some small business bosses to be such a hassle they ignore the younger generation altogether. It’s a terrible waste of potential, skills, and huge enthusiasm.
Mind the skills gap
It’s a chicken and egg situation. SMEs complain about a skills gap, and say they want young recruits with work experience, yet few small firms provide the next generation of workers with opportunities to test the waters of the workplace.
- One in three businesses aren’t satisfied with school leavers’ attitudes to work, according to research by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
- More than half of employers think schools and colleges should do more to instill a sense of the reality of working life in their students with the support of businesses themselves.
- But only 31 per cent of small firms offer work experience to students in their area, findings from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) show.
Busting common myths about work experience
Another typical reason given by SMEs for not offering work experience placements is it’s too bureaucratic. However, the Government has made it far easier for smaller employers to take on students temporarily.
- Criminal records checks, now known as Disclosure and Barring Services checks, are no longer required for members of staff in a business supervising over-16 work experience students, while those overseeing children under 16 need only be scrutinised if the school deems it necessary. There is further information in Department for Education guidelines.
- As long as a company has Employers’ Liability Compulsory Insurance policies already, it won’t have to get extra cover since work experience students are considered employees for the duration of their time with the organisation. The Association of British Insurers has more detail on its website.
- The standard health and safety risk assessments employers undertake for the good of their own employees will often suffice, especially in low-risk environments, and if a company already employs under-18s, they will be deemed prepared. Those with fewer than five employees don’t need a written risk assessment. And even in higher-risk sectors, such as construction or manufacturing, it may only be necessary to highlight possible risks with those responsible for the students, and tailor work accordingly. The Health and Safety Executive has further background for employers.
Finding the right match
Like any recruiting exercise, you want the right person for the job who will fit in and adapt to work quickly. Work experience shouldn’t be about doing your mates a favour by letting their offspring hang around the office for a few weeks, regardless of their ability or desire to be there. Ideally, there should be a selection process of some sort. The education standards body Ofsted has published tips on better engagement between work experience candidates and SMEs, and it suggests:
- Businesses engage with local schools and colleges. Those working in education are more aware of pupils’ transition to the working world, and most schools will have organised programmes for work experience placements. They could do much of the match-making necessary, and may even teach students a few basic skills relevant to your business before they arrive at work.
- Try offering work shadowing or work tasters for a day here or there during the year to introduce young locals to your business. You can see if they may be worth bringing on board for a longer stint of work.
- Ask the student to write to you spelling out why they want to work for your company, and what experience they hope to take away from it. This should tell you a lot about whether the student may be a potential fit for your business – and something about their character.
Defined projects and goals
So, let’s assume you’re one of the business owners who’ve opted to take on some work experience candidates, and you’ve got your temporary employee in place. What do you do with them to ensure they carry out non-repetitive, engaging work that will be both valuable to them and useful to you and your enterprise?
- Draw up a job description, outlining what you want the person to achieve in their time with the company. It could be a simple project – setting up the firm’s Twitter account, for example, or researching trends in a new market that may be of interest to your firm – but give the individual a clear goal, and deadlines by which to achieve certain tasks.
- Make sure he or she has a proper induction to the workplace, plus they’re talked through what they’re there to achieve so they really understand their role. Having an appropriate mentor who’s approachable is also essential. The student will need supervision, and should have a point of contact if they have any questions.
- Give the office junior feedback during their placement, not forgetting they’ve probably never been in a work environment before, so may not realise how even the most mundane of things are handled.
- Undertake a proper evaluation at the end of the stay to let the student know exactly what they’ve achieved, their areas of strength, and, quite simply, to thank them for their efforts. They’re here to get an idea of what it’s like to work, after all, so one would hope they leave with a positive impression.
Offering work experience opportunities is a great path to recruiting future talent, plus it brings in fresh ideas, and can even help improve existing employees’ skills. Your firm could gain a greater profile in your local area, plus there’s the positive side-effect of making your business more attractive to younger recruits – and possibly customers. So, embrace those work experience students with enthusiasm this summer, and make sure their time in your company is action-packed and interesting. Who knows, in a few years’ time, they may be permanently on the payroll, driving the next stage of your business, and among the most valued members of your team. And, in the meantime, that filing can look after itself …