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?