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Last Updated: Monday, 4 July, 2005, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
'Get the teas in'
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The start of the student holidays means thousands of work experience placements are looming. To kick off a fortnight of summer features, we ask will the entrepreneurs of the future get a proper taste of business or will they be making the tea?

It's not only Prince William and Euan Blair spending the summer getting a foothold in the business world - the prince in the City and the prime minister's son with a Republican politician in the US.

Thousands of young people will be gaining what they hope is valuable experience of the cut and thrust of the workplace and maybe their first glimpse of the wider adult world after 15 years in a classroom.

But work experience has always been dogged by fears that the nearest you get to the sharp end is the office kettle. Is that still the case?

To give a flavour of a real work experience placement, the Magazine features a 15-year-old girl's daily diary this week, in four parts from Tuesday to Friday
Not any more, says Alysha Morgan of Graduate Opportunities (GO) Wales, which organises placements for thousands of students and graduates.

"Employers are looking at this almost as much as a degree these days," she says. "It's the only thing that proves you can do the job. If they have two people, one with work experience and one without, they'll definitely go for the one with it. It puts a student ahead of the competition."

It's growing in popularity because as degrees become more commonplace, employers are looking at other skills to mark candidates out, she says, and a successful work experience placement shows you're capable and less of a risk to employers.

Don't be sniffy about the work either, says Tony Butler, president of graduate careers advice service AGCAS. Experience from bar or shop jobs can help answer tricky questions in many interviews or job applications.

Top of the class

And in some industries, such as investment banking, getting an internship can be harder than getting a permanent job because it's part of the recruitment process, he says. It is also an opportunity for students to find out about industries they know very little about.

More than 60% of employers offer work experience and it's not just a prospective employee they get out of it, says Mariska van der Linden of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

"It's good for staff motivation because it's nice to have a young person in the workplace and see them contributing. It's also good for community involvement and to see what the future recruitment pool looks like."

Martina Rieder, winner of the STEP student of the year
Martina Rieder (above) was Shell UK's student of the year after designing a lucrative new product for Welland Medical Limited
Ade Sodeinde, 18, on a year's placement at Central Trains before university, has saved the firm 750,000 a year due to her analysis of the timetable to help cut delays
Lynsey Stewart, 21, was a waste project officer at Gwent NHS Trust, where she identified savings worth 80,000
James Field, 21, developed a new computer-aided design which secured chandelier manufacturer Wilkinson plc a 400,000 contract
It could also save a company thousands of pounds, as Welland Medical Limited found when it took on Sussex University student Martina Rieder, 24, last summer. She designed a new skin product that will generate sales worth 300,000 per year, and developed a new skin contact adhesive that will save the company 90,000 per year.

But this was a skilled undergraduate position rewarded with 175 a week, a far cry from the experience of many 15 and 16-year-olds who are sometimes dissatisfied with how they are used.

More than half a million school pupils, at 95% of the nation's schools, go on placements at this age and the government has pledged to improve that figure and the quality of the placements.

Marc Helder recalls his two weeks at a south London supermarket after his GCSEs. "I asked for experience in retail and ended up stacking shelves. I came away thinking I'd learnt very little but had supplied free labour."

A survey by education charity Edge of nearly 3,000 young people suggests most of them enjoyed their temporary jobs but only one in five had discussed their experience afterwards with teachers.

The charity's Rachel Fergus says the problem is no attempt to link the work experience to the classroom. She wants to see more business people in schools teaching young people about the "real world".


In what was interpreted as a further admission that schools are not equipping students for work, Chancellor Gordon Brown last week announced a scheme to stimulate a business culture among schoolchildren. His plan to develop summer camps for pupils aged 12 to 18 would include lessons in how to draw up business plans and talks from local entrepreneurs.

Prince William and Euan Blair
Mine's white no sugar, William
There are obvious difficulties for students trying to be productive in one or two weeks in a new environment. After all, most permanent staff take much longer to settle into a new job.

But there are more ambitious opportunities if candidates have more time.

Lisa Berwin, 23, spent two months gaining media experience in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, thanks to a company called i-to-i, which places graduates abroad.

"I was working for an English-speaking newspaper and travelled to the north-east with the NGOs and government officials. And as a life experience, I saw things I would never have imagined."

On her first day back, she was offered a job in PR.

What are your work experience memories? Here is a selection of your comments. The debate is now closed.

When I was 15 (I'm 28 now)I did two weeks' work experience at a recording studios. I was the only female there and there was absolutely no work to do so one day the boss got all the magazines (of which there were hundreds) and scattered them over the floor, then he asked me to re-file them in date order. It took me a while to realise it was so that everyone could watch me bend over to pick them up. Although at the time it did seem mildly better than my friends' experience at a shop, where he had to sit outside by a hole for two weeks to ensure no one fell in. None of my friends had a good experience but it did teach us all how bad some jobs can be.
Cass, UK

I did one week work experience during 6th form college for Gatwick Handling at Gatwick Airport. They were very organised and had a template schedule for work experience placements. I spent a day in each area and got a real flavour of working in the airport.
Helen, UK

I had to do unpaid work experience for seven months. My parents are definitely not middle class, so after doing a 40 hour working week I also spent a further 25 hours a week working in a bingo hall. I don't work in a glamorous profession, I am an engineer, but I got the experience I needed and now I am doing the job I want.
Michael, uk

Now I have finished education I am working five days a week and doing volunteer work experience for two days a week to get the necessary experience to apply for a course I want to do. It's hard to set up but it is possible to do if you want it enough. And no, I don't have a nice little nest egg from Mummy and Daddy, I have a 10000 student debt but I work every day and manage.
Kadia , UK

I spent two weeks in a passport office. The most soul-destroying, mind-numbing work, so bad I walked out on the last day. I'd asked to work in a theatre. Theatre/passport office, easy to mix them up.
James Lewis, wales UK

I'm on my work experience now! I haven't got anything to do, but hopefully they said I would be doing more tomorrow! I have actually located MSN messenger and am talking to my friends waiting for six o' clock to tick round, only the clocks all seem to have stopped! Typical! I was probably the most efficient person in my class to get out all of my work placement letters and I bet I ended up in the naffest job! Wish me luck for tomorrow!
Krissie, UK

I spent two months interning for an Illinoisan Democratic Senator in Washington DC. It was the most amazing experience of my life to date. I didn't make tea once - I answered constituent correspondence, took tours of the Capitol building, attended legislative hearings and drafted correspondence to other US politicians. At the end of the working day, the office often went down to the Mall in front of the Capitol building to play baseball. I now work full time as a solicitor here in the UK. The only downside of the internship was that real working life here just can't measure up to that experience!
Elizabeth, UK

I worked for a stonemasons for a fortnight while in my last year at school. Mainly mixing cement for laying gravestones, making cups of tea and other forgettable tasks. We were out at a city centre crematory/burial site when I was asked to pop inside and fetch some water. I went through a door in the main building to be greeted by a foul stench and an open casket on a table. The men I was working with found it hilarious and deemed it 'character building'. Only thing I learnt was trust no-one.
Matt, UK

With an interest in design and manufacturing and attending an all girl school, I was lucky enough to go to an architect's office, where they bothered to spend the time exposing me to concepts of construction & technical design. It absolutely confirmed my interest and have been working in engineering for 9 years. I make sure I take the time for all work placement students that come my way. As I know it really can make a difference. Sinead, Belfast.
Sinead, N.Ireland

One of the issues not being addressed here are the pressures put on businesses with regard to risk assessments and working time rules for young people. I am sure many businesses would like to have more youngsters in the workplace but it's just not always viable. We have two students per year in our offices and it's hard work to organise challenging and interesting work, but avoid the pitfalls of health and safety and not burdening managers who already have too much on their plates.
Alex, UK

I spent about ten days at the age of 16 on work experience in the House of Commons, working for Paddy Ashdown. It was a lot of fun and made me feel like a grown-up as I commuted into London and had a security pass to let me in. It was a great week and they made me very welcome (not a cup of tea in sight). I also cleared their postage backlog which had been building up for three months. A great experience and useful for me and for them.
Jo Donkin, UK

I am 16 and spent the last week at work experience with a barrister in Nottingham. I'm pleased to say I did not have to make a single cup of tea and did not use the photocopier even once! I enjoyed my time immensely, spending two days at Nottingham county courts, one day in the Royal courts of justice and then one more day in a conference. I learned loads about what it was like to be a barrister, had many of my concerns addressed about what the workload was like, and made some new friends along the way!
Katie , England

I'm 27 and still remember my first work placement - it's right up there with my top five most horrendous memories. I asked to go to a primary school because I wanted to be a teacher but "they" insisted I go to a vet practice. On my first day I was asked to clean a dog's bum after he had had anaemia (no gloves provided) and hang out wet dog blankets in the pouring rain. On the second day I was summoned to the manager's office and was told that they did not like me, that they did not want me there and I was to leave immediately. I was not allowed to make a phone call and was booted out into the high street, no money, no mobile phones in those days, nothing.
Lindsey, England

Free labour definitely springs to mind. I wanted to work for a European Institution (and now do) but I spent a week getting up at the crack of dawn, wearing an outsize overall and cleaning hotel rooms as my "work experience". I didn't learn much, other than that some people are complete pigs! On the other hand, I saved the hotel a week's salary, perhaps even more as I was generally used as a bit of a dogsbody, doing anything from cleaning bedrooms, making beds, cleaning bathrooms, polishing the inside of the lifts, hoovering the restaurants etc etc.
Jennifer, France

Work experience! Ha! If you're middle class and have a nice nest egg from Mummy and Daddy then work experience is a viable option. I left uni five years ago, got offered some dream work experience for a tv company for two months: however on a salary of 0.00 I was unable to take it up. I still dream of what my life would have been like had I been in the position to take it...
Suzanne, UK

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