Work experience is usually a waste of time for all concerned.
That’s because it’s looked at in completely the wrong way.
To change it – to make work experience beneficial for the people and the company involved – we need to look at work experience differently.
Are you experienced?
Work experience people are normally seen as extra manual labour. They are deemed the lowest of the low, and given mind-numbing tasks to do – filing, photocopying, DVD-burning, tea-making…
That’s because the starting point is their experience – or rather, their lack of it. The work experience person (let’s call him James) is the least experienced member of the team, so he gets to do the least exciting stuff.
This seems an intuitive approach, but it has deleterious effects.
It tells James that he has little to contribute, that what he can contribute is generic and not the result of his personal abilities, and that the world of work is going to be pretty dry for the first few years.
It also has a negative impact on the person charged with managing James – there’s little scope for development in the tasks he’s doing, so the manager does more babysitting than they do managing.
And there’s a negative impact on the team and the company as a whole, because it shows that working there can be dull, because it feels faintly like exploitation (dull work for little/no pay, anyone?), and because it tells James (and he tells his friends) that this is a boring place to work.
All this proceeds from the starting point that Jim is inexperienced, and that lack of experience is his defining characteristic.
This is a sorry state of affairs.
But I don’t think work experience should be abandoned. Instead, it needs to be rethought.
A new model for work experience
To create a new model of work experience, we need a new starting point.
We should start by trying to figure out what James could usefully do. What could he – or any other school-age teenager – contribute to the team?
If we start by seeing James as a person with a unique perspective, a lot of things can change.
From that starting point, we can develop several ways of making work experience a more positive experience all round.
James is from a different generation to everyone else in the office. He sees the world differently. He uses technology differently. His priorities, his social relations, and his use of information are all different.
That makes him a valuable resource.
First, innovation is kindled by diverse opinions. James can help with that, because he won’t have absorbed the team’s in-built assumptions and shared reference points.
Second, for many businesses, James will belong to the target market – unlike everyone else at the company. His presence is a great opportunity to get an in-depth customer feedback.
And third, no-one in a modern office is an internet native, yet every business uses the internet in some way. James can’t remember there not being an internet, and he uses it in a different way to those of us who have had to learn how it works. He represents the company’s future customers.
The company can get much from James than better-arranged files. In doing so, they will give him a much more rewarding experience, which will in turn create a positive experience for his manager, a better impression of the team, and an improved self- and external image for the company as a whole.
By seeking more from James and his peers, work experience can be transformed – from a neglected act of charity to a deliberate effort to create tangible benefits for the people and the company involved.
Start as you mean to go on
Work experience can be something of tangible and lasting value, rather than a waste of everyone’s time.
It should be a means of getting new ideas and perspectives into the company, rather than a cheap way to get an extra pair of hands.
All we need to do is to have a different starting point: to define a work experience person’s in terms of their unique perspective, rather than their lack of experience, and so to unlock their potential to contribute to the business.