Are You Experienced?

Are You Experienced?

Peter Grigg writes an interesting post over on the Make Your Mark blog on the subject of work experience.  In it he asks us to consider a different world;

” Work experience projects that use the talent of young people to result in real business innovation and real customer feedback from young people.

 Long-term mentoring and networking opportunities as additions to work experience and careers fairs.

Young people’s insights and skills (e.g. with social media) being used to inform good business and corporate responsibility.

Updates from Twitter during a placement that keep parents, schools, colleges and other interested parties engaged in the work experience as it happens. ”

Now you may expect me to pick these ideas up and run with them, however this touches on something which has been troubling me the last few times I’ve been into London schools, so I’m going to share it. 

I agreee that young people have a great deal to add to the business environment and I love the idea that they should be encouraged to contribute their ideas.  However, in the schools I visit,  there are more urgent challenges which need talking about, and which work experience can address.   I say this having left every one of those schools completely energised by the students’ potential and talent.  It’s how they are communicating that potential which worries me.

It is not an exaggeration to say that some of the students I’m meeting do not have the ability to speak properly in a business environment.  I’m not talking about ‘How Now Brown Cow’, I’m talking about their ability to construct a decent sentence which does not contain the word ‘innit’.  Beginning a pitch with the words;

Well, like, this is gonna, you know, like, be a great fing”

Is a sure-fire way not to get a job. I don’t care how you talk with your mates, there are some simple techniques for speaking in business and you can learn them pretty quickly if you want to.   

 I shudder to think how some of them would get on trying to make a telephone call to a potential customer, let alone meeting them for the first time.  After several minutes in conversation, I am almost always inspired by them, however the first impression is too often absolutely dreadful.  Who is teaching them how to shake hands properly?  To make eye contact?  To do up their shoelaces when they are making a business presentation?  It staggers me.  These are all things which can be learnt and which a business environment can encourage and develop.

The level of ignorance around what certain careers involve is also unbelievable.  I had lunch with a fantastic guy this year who told me that he wanted to be a lawyer.  After talking about how enjoyable it would be to represent someone in court, he added that being a lawyer would also mean that he didn’t have to read any books. He was 15 years old, not 5!  Who is explaining to schools what jobs involve?  Another student was amazed by my advice that being an actor might involve quite a bit of sitting around.  And so it goes on.  This is the second area where work experience can play a powerful role in clarifying what certain people do all day

We all know that school tricks us into thinking that the world is all about working all by yourself. Through work experience, students can see what it’s like fitting into a team, being resourceful and (when well run) having their own ideas and making them happen. 

There is a worrying sense of entitlement which I’ve noticed around this subject.  A certain amount of huffing and puffing at being asked to do the stapling on the first day.  The idea that this could be a simple way of discovering whether you’re fit for anything else completely passes some students by.  The idea that it’s a smart way to test initiative before allocating the next role is beyond comprehension.  Of course, some work experiences are run badly.  It just occurs to me that the bottom rung seems the logical place to start, rather than elevating someone to student-creative-director-in-residence on their first morning.  At Hit Entertainment (one of my first internships), I was told to go and sort out the brochures cupboard.  This took several days.  At the end of it, I knew more about what the company did and didn’t produce than half of the other people in the building.  When asked to photocopy a document, I (rightly or wrongly) read it.  When given a menial task,  I always followed up with the question “would you like me to…” followed by a guess at what the next step might be (post it/call and tell them you’re running late/tell John they’re here/have a think about some other options).  Almost always the answer was yes. 

So I would love to help Peter in inspiring more productive work experiences.  However I want to encourage students to see the opportunity as a chance to develop their communication skills, to find out what a job REALLY entails and to use it as a way to exceed expectation and show off how resourceful they can be.  Everyone thinks they can run a company better, and some of those ideas are powerful and valuable.  The trick might be to earn the trust and respect of colleagues through a series of tasks well done before unpacking some of the really exciting stuff.

Now where did I put my stapler?    



3 Replies to “Are You Experienced?”

  1. Excellent repost, Oli! Thanks.

    You’re right to recognise that we have a massive problem with literacy and numeracy in this country that is not to be under-estimated. And there are ways that work-related learning can help highlight and bring home the importance of some of these issues. (e.g. the example of the football agent to demonstrate why maths is important).

    The things I would like to challenge though is 1) the presumption that work experience needs to be two-weeks sitting in one place and 2) the notion that young people should be seen and not heard.

    As your meetings with young people shows, you’d get more of conversations with mentors, and with networking meetings than you’d ever get two weeks stapling. so why don’t we encourage more of this as a way to expand careers advice? Ten minutes with someone like you will be worth so much more than a standard hour-long presentation from a tired-careers adviser.

    And having started my professional life as an intern I agree there is a lot to be learnt from photocopying, stapling and observing – but I also appreciated the fact that somebody (sometimes…) listened to what I had to say and asked my opinion.

    I couldnt think of anything worse than creative-directors on day one – but I’m suggesting that if, for instance, a company wanted to launch a new product with the youth market – couldn’t one route be to engage young people on this journey through work-related learning (even if they cant write very well)? See for example

    your idea of building trust and respect over a series of tasks is absolutely spot on – in an ideal world “the 2-week experience” would be part of a longer term involvement and relationship with a school or college. A lot of good work experience palcements out there already do some of this. I’m just interested in a bit more…

    Speak soon,


  2. O. (Hi P.)

    This is a fascinating debate. The reason why we use work placements as part of our social engagement and community change strategy is because it sits within a pathway. I believe work placements in their own right very hit and miss. Those that could normally grab the opportunity of a work placement would probably do well anyway. However, if the experience is in isolation, then it is far more patchy.

    The scalable component is critical; in most difficult communities the work placement opportunities they have access to are really poor, and in a sense it could be perceived as it’s a judgment or insight on what may lie ahead. How to make the experience valuable is essential, both for the businesses and individuals.

    I think you come with a middle class perspective here O. Of course what you say is true, however, saying something and have someone act on it are two different things. Change within a work placement setting, i believe you need to address certain points.

    You have to have a pre-programme (for most) that prepares the young people for the experience, and it has to be within context of their aspirations, wants and desires. On that programme you need to have:

    1. There has to be a level of security, respect, credibility and safety before you can do anything meaningful
    3. Find their ‘inspiration’ or want and build the programme around that
    4. It has to be aspirational as well as inspirational – the standards need to be high! As well as consistency.
    5. It has to change the way they think and act – this is best done in a structured frame work
    6. It has to be practical – with a well reasoned, logical pathway to what it is they want
    7. The pathway needs to have a experiential component to it
    8. You must take participants outside their comfort zone and all their actions must lead toward a desired goal
    9. There needs to be consistency and reliability in their experience

    I do believe work placements could be used within the learning framework of school, however, not without some radical change in the process. Back to the nagging question O – ‘what’s the purpose of school’

    There just isn’t enough joined-up-thinking in my mind.

  3. Oli good piece, as usual interesting and thought provoking, as my better half runs a school for excluded children, I see the harsh side of life and exposed to some of these issues, mainly school doesnt prepare our children for life, it prepares them for tests, and if they are not as good at the test mentallity but more creative, it fails them. I meet children who come from backgrounds you can;t imagine, who wan’t to be something but unless they pass a test that allows them, they can’t, just sheer madness. What we do is teach them life, budgets, outdoor aspects (some of these children have never been on a train never mind a plane, to visit another city) how to present themselves and convey what they wish without anger.
    Its a tough world out in the harsher side of life, and what some of these children battle through, and I help with, is to stop them from just accepting the job placement at the biscuit factory and thus make them think what would they like to do.

    And yes basic things like answering the phone, taking a message and not answering with innit, takes time, but they need help and support around all of this….

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