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From work experience to work inspiration

From work experience to work inspiration
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Back in 2010 I attended the BITC (Business in the Community) Work Inspiration launch and was struck by the realisation that it was time to make some serious changes to the way we engaged with local schools to provide work experience placements.

Like many companies, we have always welcomed work experience students. Yet until we launched a campaign to up our game, their placements with us often felt like an unplanned additional extra to cram into a busy working week. After attending the launch, where I was able to speak with other business leaders who were involved in similar initiatives, it became obvious that in order to make our work-experience programme inspirational for both students and staff we needed to apply a similar approach to the one we use when designing powerful learning journeys for our clients.

With this change in mindset, I suddenly began to see a whole host of opportunities unfold before me. A chance to create a common sense of purpose amongst our own team by building an award-winning work experience strategy that would improve motivation, cross-functional relationships and understanding. I wanted us to create a programme that would genuinely engage with young people in our workspaces. Something that would inspire them and send them back to school with shiny eyes, a renewed sense of their own potential and memories they could draw upon for motivation in the future.

These are some of the things we have learned along the way:

Design your programme carefully. We held internal discussions, involving all functions and levels, and external stakeholder consultations to design a programme that would benefit all. It’s also vital to build good relationships with your local schools. Make time to visit both teachers and students before and after the work experience placement, to define objectives and expectations and to gather feedback.

Involve and manage
Involve as many of your departments/functions as possible. Over 70% of our employees have engaged with the students, with each department developing a stimulating, experience-based project that allows the students to practically experience what they do, showcases their role and demonstrates how their function relates to the wider organisation.

Work Inspiration is a company-wide project for us, but we soon found it was vital to appoint a Work Inspiration Manager who takes on the role of leading and co-ordinating the initiative. This doesn’t need to be a full time position by any means. In our case it has proved to be a development opportunity for an existing member of staff.

Make it matter
They may not have been around as long, but the views and experiences of school students are so rich in their diversity. Why give them photocopying when they can add value to your social media strategy? Why ask them to sort the mail when you could involve them in testing new products and helping you to spot future trends?  Would you rather hone their tea-making skills, or get their advice on how to recruit and retain those of a similar generation? Ensure there are real, consequential outcomes to the projects you set, giving students the potential to add value to your business. Don’t underestimate their abilities. I will never forget the look of amazement from our Finance Director when a group of 16 year olds, tasked with creating a new style of presentation for our monthly financial update, came back to him, with an accurate, visually attractive and bang up to date format. It had taken half the time he had expected and less time to do than he would usually take himself!

Provide transferable skills. It’s unlikely that all your students will have a passion to enter the industry you are in. To make the experience as valuable as possible for them, try to design projects that not only showcase specific roles, but that also call for transferable skills – such as team working, communication, leadership and H&S awareness.

Encourage diversity
Our most successful work experience programmes have involved bringing together students from a variety of local schools. This has provided an extra level of challenge and networking.

Ask for feedback
Our students usually stay with us for a week and we always ask them to present back to the whole company on the final Friday lunch time, what they experienced, what they have learnt and what they intend to do with it. Children who often found it hard to make eye contact with us on the Monday are now animated and enthusiastic about playing back to us the excitement of their week. These moments are usually funny, often revealing (I think we learn as much as they do) and even emotional as we see how they have grown in stature in such a short time.

Be ready to accept that you won’t get it right first time and that what works for one group may not work quite as well for another. You’ll need to be flexible and willing to adjust the design as you go.   

We are all incredibly proud of our Work Inspiration programme, and as with our client work, we continue to look for ways to improve our own offering and share our experience with other organisations. The BITC Big Tick Award scheme is one way that we hope to continue promoting the benefit of this initiative. We have received a Big Tick for the last two years in recognition of our efforts.

Every company will have a different approach to work experience, and will be able to offer different opportunities and gain different rewards. We’d love to hear what your organisation currently does and what your hopes for the future are.

David Williams is Impact's Founder and CEO.