After FE Week revealed last week that Kwik Fit was looking to take on unpaid trainees for up to five months, Stephen Gardner explains why national standards to safeguard learners are needed.

With study programmes, traineeships and many local initiatives aimed at helping unemployed people into paid employment, this will become an increasingly important debate in the coming years.

The question has no simple answer, but I am very clear — well organised, supportive work experience provides an invaluable opportunity and we need many more employers to offer it.

Work experience should be voluntary — an individual willingly participating with the aim of finding out what it is actually like to work in a potential career.

It should be well chosen, providing experience in a job role and sector of interest to that individual.

It should be well-planned, allowing the individual to gain usable skills and an insight into possible futures from those already in employment.

It must involve learning — techniques, skills and behaviours that will really help them secure employment.

There should be a fair financial arrangement between the funded organisation and the individual”

And it must involve fair and honest feedback — a realistic appraisal of the skills the individual has and does not have, letting them know what they need to do to find employment in their chosen field.

These criteria must be built into all work experience.

There should also be a fair financial arrangement between the funded organisation and the individual.

This will vary from case-to-case but in the recent Kwik Fit example, where the employer is funded by the government, I would expect a fair arrangement to see the employer pass on some of the funds to the individual through expenses or a bursary.

This would be a fair sharing of the commitment, costs and funds involved.

Where providers receive the funds, I would expect providers to allocate funds for the individual’s expenses and possibly offset employers’ set-up costs.

So why should employers get involved? Isn’t the recent hiatus surrounding “workfare” a good reason not to offer unpaid work experience?

I strongly disagree with this argument, but only if we are talking about a fair, good quality experience.

Fundamentally, work experience must involve some “productive” work, but in a good quality experience the main focus should be learning.

The time spent by existing employees organising the placement, supporting the individual feedback and giving feedback to the individual and the provider will vastly exceed any economic benefit.

Ideally, employers will consider work experience as the early stages of recruitment — this is what the individual participating and the government hopes.

Employers with an apprenticeship scheme may consider work experience an extended interview, much like the unfortunately misnamed programme “The Apprentice”.

Many though, will offer work experience because they genuinely want to help.

Let’s not forget that “employers” are made up of individuals, many of whom got their first chance through work experience.

If there are to be enough placements, employers need to be assured they can offer work experience without adversely affecting their business through cost or loss of reputation.

Providing work experience must be straightforward and easy to put in place.

Recent clarifications on health and safety and insurance requirements are welcome and providers have a role in helping employers implement a good quality programme.

The biggest hurdle is to establish a good reputation for work experience.

The new national standards for work experience will help, by defining good quality work experience that helps individuals find paid employment, accrediting only providers and employers who offer this, and providing a means for young people to complain where standards are not met.

They have the potential to ensure work experience is an invaluable opportunity and not exploitation.

 

Stephen Gardner, chief executive, Fair Train