By Joan Wilson, NCUB Research Analyst

Universities and businesses need to recognise the potential for work experience opportunities to make a positive contribution to social mobility.

As an early introduction to potential career paths, work experience matters in the lifecycle of undergraduate education, but how important is it perceived to be and are opportunities fairly distributed among students from different backgrounds?

According to the 2014 UK Commission’s Employer Perspectives Survey (UKCEPS) of around 18,000 employing establishments, relevant work experience represents a critical or significant factor in hiring decisions for 66% of recruiting employers. Meanwhile the most common and free recruitment channel that employers tend to use is word of mouth or personal recommendation, with 30% of surveyed employers saying that they do so.

As discussed in my previous blog, evidence from the UKCEPS and our computer science report indicates a higher prevalence of participation in shorter-term work experience opportunities among students and the growing use of work experience as a recruitment tool by employers. Additionally, employer engagement with students is taking place at earlier stages in the academic path, a situation that potentially enables employers to scoop the cream of the crop of the student population ahead of competitors.

The increasing significance of prior work experience in recruitment decisions and the strategy of engaging with students early on in their degree stands to contribute to the Catch-22 trap for young people who have yet to secure work experience, whereby it becomes ‘difficult to get work without experience and difficult to obtain experience without work’, as the Catch 16-24: Youth Employment Challenge (2015) report noted (pp. 4).

At the same time a growing body of evidence is highlighting the exclusivity of access to top jobs by economically advantaged students in sectors such as Law, Accountancy and Finance, a situation that, even if not immediately evident 6 months after undergraduate degree completion, does appear 3 years on from graduation.  

Taken together, all of these circumstances suggest an uneven distribution of work experience opportunities. This in turn has implications for fairness in access to this activity among young people, their ability to enter high status occupations and the associated issues of social mobility and equality of opportunity across the life course both at the geographical and the industry sector level.  

What steps can universities and businesses take to ensure that work experience acts as a positive source for increasing social mobility?

Both parties may need to extend their outreach – businesses need to collaborate with universities that feature a more diverse student population on the one hand, and universities need to approach businesses in sectors with the most potential for employment growth on the other, so that the channels of opportunity for students are widened.

One of the main ways to generate or boost collaboration links is through utilising the knowledge exchange capabilities that students currently involved in placements provide. Such students will have ties to their existing placement employer and university, while through their experiences in industry they may also develop new networks of potential business linkages that their university can tap into on their return to study as well as via future alumni relations.

At the same time work experience opportunities need to cater for the varying requirements of students. Offers may need to incorporate shorter-term experiences – like work shadowing, summer vacation internships and part-time opportunities – and different methods of experience, such as apprenticeships and vocational training approaches. Greater flexibility and variation in work experience types could be particularly helpful to those students who are struggling to ascertain their future career path and who therefore may otherwise opt out of undergoing any work experience. The chance to try out different work tasters could help in identifying their options and in forming their decision-making processes over what to do following graduation.

Overall, if work-related opportunities can be extended out to students who may otherwise lack the knowledge and, more importantly, the social and business networks to be able to enter certain professions, sectors and top-level occupations, then work experience can provide a key contribution to improving social mobility.

On this basis, business interest in offering work experience could be enhanced where it can be classified as a source for corporate social responsibility. For universities, potentially higher levels of student recruitment after graduation for a greater number of students, including more from diverse backgrounds, stand to raise levels of student satisfaction with a university and therefore the relative ranking of the institution.

It is vital for universities and businesses to encourage the use of work experience as a means for enhancing social mobility. The arguments presented here reveal the increasing importance of work experience as a means for raising life chances among students of different social backgrounds, and the NCUB is committed to supporting this strand of collaboration potential.