Recent publications reinforce the importance of work experience for school, college and university students

One of the consequences of the economic recession of the late 2000’s, which resulted in large rises in youth unemployment across the world, was a renewed focus on how well education systems were preparing young people for work. An important aspect of this was on how schools, colleges and universities could work better with employers, for example in relation to work experience.

Numerous reports since then have reinforced the value of work placements for students and unemployed young people, and this article summarises the conclusions of three recent publications on this topic.

Catch 16-24: Youth Employment Challenge

February 2015 saw the publication of the latest youth employment challenge report Catch 16-24 from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). Its 2014 Employer Perspectives Survey found that the young people employers recruit are generally well prepared for work – the main thing they lack is experience rather than literacy or numeracy.

The UKCES report reminds us that many young people remain caught in a Catch-22 situation when it comes to getting on in today’s labour market – they can’t get work without experience and can’t gain experience without work! This is compounded by the fact that the proportion of 16 and 17 year olds combining full-time education with a part-time job has halved in fifteen years – less than a quarter of teenagers now combine school with work!

Two thirds of employers say work experience is a significant or crucial factor in their recruitment, yet most aren’t engaged with schools and colleges to offer the placements necessary to enable young people to gain experience. Who you know and where you live impact significantly on the work experience opportunities available to young people, and there are significant regional variations as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 Whether establishments have had a student on placements in previous 12 months, by region IMG_0974

The UKCES reports reinforces the need for the worlds of education and employment to be better connected to prepare young people for the world of work. It stresses that all schools, colleges and universities should have links with local businesses to help inform and inspire young people about the breadth of career opportunities available to them. Importantly, it recommends that contact with the world of work should be an ongoing part of every young person’s education. In Scotland, the Invest in Youth Groups, which will be funded by the Scottish Government, will play a critical role in linking employers and education.

Work placements in university degrees

National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) published a report in January 2015, Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science.

The report provides evidence that work placements improve the employment record of computer graduates in the UK. However, not all universities offer placements and, despite efforts to support work placements for undergraduates, demand from students in computer science is low, especially for sandwich placements.

There is an increasing demand for shorter placements from students and employers, and NCUB recommends that universities should focus on increasing demand and monitoring the impact of all placements. In Scotland, a range of placement programmes have been introduced to fulfil demand in areas like computing and engineering. For example, e-Placement Scotland is an industry-backed programme run by Edinburgh Napier University, e-skills UK and industry body ScotlandIS, funded by the Scottish Funding Council. Careerwise is a Scottish Government funded programme which aims to encourage more women to pursue STEM careers through the provision of paid work placements key sectors like engineering and technology.

Author’s aside – Sandwich satisfied my hunger for understanding

In 1987, I returned to full-time education to do a computing degree. Aged 25, with a new baby and an even newer mortgage, my motivation for this was very simple – to get a decently paid job in the growing IT industry!

I was offered places by two universities and two technical colleges, and quickly discarded the two universities because they didn’t offer a sandwich placement. I chose what was then called Glasgow College of Technology (now Glasgow Caledonian University) and spent my third year as a Trainee Systems Analyst at Motorola Ltd.

I have no doubt that I learned more about computing in my year in industry than in my first two years at university. The skills and experience I gained built my confidence, enhanced my knowledge and developed my expertise in the subject, all of which led to me winning the IBM prize for top student in my final year. And my salary of around £7500 for the year was a very welcome addition to our family income at a time when interest rates were hitting the roof and we were struggling to pay our mortgage!

Developing the Young Workforce

In December 2014, the Scottish Government published Developing the Young Workforce, which sets out how it will implement the recommendations from the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, established in January 2013 to explore how to develop a modern, responsive and valued system for vocational training. The Commission’s final report Education Working for All! was published on 3 June 2014 and set out 39 recommendations.

Developing the Young Workforce sets out how the Scottish Government aims to implement the recommendations of the Commission. Work experience for young people in school and college is a key aspect of this, and the strategy includes plans for a new standard for work experience in schools, as well as a new focus on work experience and the quality of careers guidance as part of secondary school inspection programme. For colleges, it wants young people to benefit from better work-related learning experiences, supported by a new standard for work experience for colleges.

The strategy sets out plans for engaging with employers on a more systematic basis by engaging with existing industry-led groups and establishing new industry-led groups in parts of the country where they do not currently exist. The hope is that these Invest in Youth groups will play an important role in coordinating the involvement of employers in schools and colleges.


Work experience matters. Few disagree with this. But more commitment from all concerned is needed, so that all students and jobless young people have access to high quality work placements.

Links for further reading

  • Developing the Young Workforce, Scottish Government Youth Employment Strategy, December 2014
  • Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science, National Centre for Universities and Business, January 2015
  • Key issues in employer engagement in education: why it makes a difference and how to deliver at scale, UK Edge Foundation and Skills Development Scotland, January 2015
  • Catch 16-24, UK Commission for Employment and Skills Youth Employment Challenge Report, February 2015

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