By Joan Wilson – NCUB Research Analyst

Work experience is essential for student employability – businesses and universities need to increase collaboration if they are to provide the best chances for students to benefit from work-based learning opportunities.

Over the past month we have been focusing on placements, internships and work experience opportunities for students. June has been an exceptionally successful month online, with placements-related content delivering more traffic to our website than any other this year.

Previous comments from our Chief Executive have shown why this time of year is so crucial for students who are considering their employment options.

Here we revisit what we know and look towards our future research plans on work experience, as an important and growing area of collaboration between universities and businesses.

We note that:

•    Work experience matters: 66% of recruiting employers consider it to be of critical or significant value when looking to hire (based on UKCEPS data for 2014 of around 18,000 establishments);

•    Students want their universities to have greater links with businesses through which more work experience opportunities can be offered, while businesses are keen for universities to take a pro-active approach to generating links with students;

•    Participation in, access to and the availability of work experience opportunities are important areas for our future NCUB research agenda, as we look towards encouraging universities and businesses to foster fairness in work-based learning opportunities for all students.

We start with some background context to the discussion.

What is work experience?

Engagement with work experience by students encompasses a broad spectrum of activity – including informal and frequently unpaid short work tasters lasting around a week and occurring at any point in the year to internships that are paid or unpaid opportunities taking place over the summer or upon graduation with a 6-12 week duration.

The longest, most structured form of work experience and one for which the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) collects data on is a sandwich or industry placement, which involves paid, mainly full-time work that lasts between 6 months to a year, and is frequently an accredited degree component carried out by students in the third year of their studies.

It is evident that the sheer breadth of types of work experience on offer poses a real challenge to attempts to capture and quantify how much of this activity is taking place overall as well as within each type.

Why is work experience important?

Evidence suggests that young people with four or more episodes of work experience undertaken while in education ‘are five times less likely to be NEET later on (not in education, employment or training), which emphasises the need to engage employers in offering more work experience’ (UK Commission’s Employer Perspectives Survey (UKCEPS) 2014, pp. 37).

At the wider society and economic level, work experience enables students to secure generic work readiness and employability skills that businesses value, which in turn contributes to economic productivity, global competitiveness and sustained economic growth (UKCEPS, 2014).

From the perspective of all parties involved – universities, businesses and students – there are huge benefits that accrue from high quality work experience relationships and opportunities, as our case studies clearly show.

Awareness of these positive returns to work experience is increasing: the UKCEPS (2014) found that, when taking on new staff, 43% of recruiting employers consider relevant work experience to be of significant value, and a further 23% consider it to be of critical value, out of a sample of around 18,000 establishments.

Our Student Employability Index 2014 survey indicated that students are also calling for universities to have greater links to business and to provide more opportunities for work experience, requirements that universities cannot afford to ignore if they want to raise their rankings on overall levels of student satisfaction.

How much work experience is available?

Data from the UKCEPS (2014) looks at the amount and duration of work experience available, as well as establishment size among those offering opportunities.

The figures indicate that 12% of establishments across the UK had a least one university student in a placement post, while 6% had interns from school, college or university.

Near half of all placement posts in the previous 12 months involved just one individual (49%, or 1,604 out of 3,274 establishments), and a further 20% and 13% involved 2 and 3-4 persons respectively.

Typically, these placements were of short duration, with 35% lasting from a week or less to one month, 32% lasting for 2-3 months and 31% being over 3 months long.

Most of these opportunities came through small-sized organisations comprising of 2 to 24 employees – 43% or 1414 out of 3,274 establishments – while a further 34% were accounted for by organisations with 25-99 employees and 23% came through establishments with 100 or more employees (see Table 62 of the Employer Perspectives Survey 2014 – UK data tables).

There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that employers are increasingly using work experience as an integral and intentional part of their recruitment strategy. The UKCEPS (2014) showed that work experience is being offered for the purpose of corporate benefit, with 28% of establishments stating they do so because this “helps us with recruitment”. Additionally, of the 3,274 establishments that had a student in a placement post in the last 12 months, 21% had taken on that person in a long-term paid role.

Furthermore the timing of opportunities appears to be shifting: short-term work shadowing and internship roles are being offered to undergraduates at earlier stages of their studies, as employers attempt to engage with committed, motivated students before their competitors do. This earlier engagement with undergraduates was observed in our report on placements in Computer Science.

How can the supply of work experience be raised?

These findings on the supply of work experience suggest that, in order to boost available opportunities, universities need to forge relationships with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in particular, in order to tap into their potential for offering work experience for the first time. Universities also need to encourage SMEs and larger companies to provide a wider quantity of opportunities where placements are already available.
On the duration side, universities could develop greater flexibility in opportunities by supporting shorter-term work experience types, and, where possible, accrediting these so as to ensure quality standards are set and maintained – a recommendation that was also reached in the NCUB review of undergraduate placements in computer science.

Our forthcoming report on work experience puts forward these supply-side approaches, whilst also discussing the caveats to a two-pronged strategy of encouraging higher volume and shorter duration work experiences. Caveats relate both to the costs of managing new relationships with smaller businesses and to the development and monitoring of a broader range of work experience schemes, whether accredited or not.

However, there is also evidence that employers would value a more proactive approach from universities in linking students and businesses, with 12% of respondents to the UKCEPS (2014) stating so. This is particularly the case among larger establishments with 100 employees or more (17%).
Additionally, for students, shorter work episodes are easier to fit into the academic calendar and they allow for more than one work experience opportunity to be undertaken, consequently enabling greater skills acquisition that can help influence and determine their future career path.

Setting the scene for our ongoing research agenda on work experience: participation, access and availability.

The movements and changes taking shape in the work experience market place bring to light some causes for concern. One issue that remains difficult to tackle is the extent of participation in work experience by university students and how this can be increased. Our report on the computer sciences field noted that low take-up of sandwich placements relates to a lack of understanding of the benefits accruing to work experience among students. This combines with a higher opportunity cost associated with delayed entry to the labour market and subsequent delayed earnings that a year in industry entails.

Both of these influences on participation suggest insufficient information channels between universities and students on the long-term benefits of work experience, which need to be improved, as does the reliability of information on these long-run returns. There is also a necessity to offer a range of shorter-term work experience opportunities that satisfy time constraints, as well as a general need ‘to dispel the belief that there is a conflict between academic achievement and work experience’ (Executive Summary).

Another area of concern arises from the increasing use of work experience as a recruitment device by employers and a growing pressure for work experience opportunities to take place earlier on in a student’s academic track.

The potential for ‘cream-skimming’ that these dual situations imply – whereby businesses may deliberately target early stage, high achieving undergraduates from specific universities as future employees – in turn has implications for both the geographical dispersion of work experience opportunities and the potential for work experience to have a positive impact on intergenerational social mobility and equality of opportunity.

All of these issues of participation, access and distribution are pertinent to our growing research agenda on work experience here at the NCUB. As we look to encourage greater and fairer opportunities for participation through wider university and business collaboration, we also call on the need for the evidence base on work experience activity to be strengthened by these groups, and specifically to attempt to incorporate as yet unrecorded incidences of work experience that a student organises themselves without any university-based involvement.