The Staffroom: Making friends and allies to crack the challenge of work experience

With a nationwide challenge to increase work placement quantity and quality, it’s time for the sector to call in a chit with its substantial network of contacts

With a nationwide challenge to increase work placement quantity and quality, it’s time for the sector to call in a chit with its substantial network of contacts

20 Mar 2023, 5:00

“To be a good journalist, make friends.” So were the words of my Sheffield College journalism tutor back in 2005. An old-school lecturer and press hack, the truth is my work experience opportunities relied more on his network than any friends that I could make. A contacts book bulged by years in industry and a course with a strong regional reputation mattered. But, as work experience has now become a major focus in the post-16 education agenda, how can we repeat the trick at a T level scale? I work in education now, but I find thinking like a journalist is a useful skill in this regard.

Immortalised by The Inbetweeners and etched in our own memories, work experience is the rite of passage of the post-16 student. But as the T level requirement for 315 placement hours ups the ante for colleges and students alike, delivering both quantity and quality has become one of the key challenges facing skills education.

General further education might not often claim an alumni society, but its reach stretches into every industry, office and business. If you know where to look and are bold enough to ask, it’s amazing what can be found. Much like the no-nonsense advice of that wizened newshound-turned-teacher, the strategies for success have budged little: committed phone calls, worn shoe leather and a social media presence are the routes to lighting up that network with opportunities.

And it turns out people like helping our students. In our department of business, IT and social sciences, the dedicated work of teaching staff has put together a network of policing, legal and court contacts as well as a plethora of businesses across accounting, marketing and IT services.

That’s a great first step, but the key is to establish a strong range of ‘repeat business’ work experience placements. This comes down to three factors.

Promote your courses

Businesses don’t know your latest offering; why would they? But one LinkedIn post might be all it takes. Broadcasting the talent of our students led us to having a law firm on board, keen to involve our Applied Law group in their work.

They offer advice on the range of careers and routes the profession offers, and they ensure our students make connections alongside their work experience placements, giving them the ‘inside scoop’ on the reality of law with the firm. It helps them too; their assessment speaks for itself: “I don’t why we haven’t started working with you sooner.”

Keep tabs on job opportunities

Firms face a tough jobs market and connecting them to the groundswell of talent at the college produces lightning-quick email responses. Work such as apprenticeships and trainee posts are often cyclical in big companies, so their HR department are the first people to contact.

For example, a chance search brought up 10 trainee posts in one local accountancy company. It took one email to create a connection to real work in a local business our students may never have considered or heard of. On top of that, they came in to talk to our business students about what accountancy is really like, and even gave our Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) group a chance to hone the applications.

Get out of college

This might be the information age, but face-to-face contact at local business events, conferences and recruitment fairs can’t be beaten for growing your network. The job of good management is to grow those opportunities and crucially find out what skill shortages there are in the local economy.

Chance conversations are a rich avenue of research and development, whether they lead to work experience, job posts or introductions into industries. One of our ex-students now runs a cybersecurity company. Your alumni will be doing amazing things on your doorstep too, and feed right back into this virtuous cycle.

Our work has always been more than delivering qualifications alone. If a student is qualified with skills an industry needs but doesn’t know where to start, then the job is only half-done. Growing our students’ work experience and their contacts book means they can write their own story once they leave.

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3 Comments

  1. Fiona Rees

    It’s not what you know it’s who you know is basically your point. So much easier if you’re from a socioeconomic group that has networked over generations. I always worry about ‘the in-betweeners’ as an example comparable to real life. Not really, misses the point for most students.

    • Fiona Rees

      Why is my second comment not shown. Where was the editorial process when you considered ‘immortalised in the inbetweeners’ as a meaningful reference in 2023? It’s casual homophobia, sexism and able ism are not acceptable touchstones
      coming from an educator. It obviously means alot to you. Defend it ?