A group of students in a workshop

Creating valuable student work experience


Work experience provides the perfect opportunity to engage and inspire young talent, offering a glimpse into working life. Many students face challenges when beginning their career search with preconceptions about certain industries, monetary barriers and anxiety to name a few.

At our latest Coffee with Uptree insights session, we were joined by Sarah Noble, Head of Early Engagement and Enrolment, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and Lin Proctor, Careers Lead, Wallington County Grammar School. They shared their views on what valuable work experience looks like and how companies can ensure they’re supporting young people in the right way.

Students looking at computer

What barriers are young people facing to taking their next steps in their career after further education?

Lin Proctor:

“Barriers are even higher now than they were before. There are four main things that are needed. Knowledge about what's out there and what they need to do, confidence in themselves, support from school or family and access to work experience. I’ve seen students who’ve done work experience and realised working in law was not for them. They had preconceived ideas about what it was like from watching things on TV.

A number of work experience opportunities require students to go through an application process, which, for many, can be an immense barrier. It’s about getting them to be curious and explorative which is not a comfortable place to be. Young people like to be sure of things so getting them to do something they don’t think they want to do isn’t easy. Students need small steps.

For some students, English is not the first language spoken at home. If employers have a lot of very complicated information on websites, young people may be able to understand some of it but the parents often can’t, and the importance of parent buy-in shouldn’t be underestimated. ”

Sarah Noble:

“Even if work experience rules out something, it’s equally as valuable as work experience that affirms what students want to do. It’s about raising self esteem and their aspirations. There’s a lack of role models, especially if their parents have never worked. It can make it hard to see the value in trying for a role as there may be a fear of failure.

Mental health can play a part. Over the past two years, society has closed in on itself. Young people have not been socialising or developing transferable skills. They also don’t have the network or contacts that people usually develop a few years down the line.

Students from underprivileged backgrounds can struggle with not having the money to get to interviews. If you’re interviewing young people, make allowances. For example, let them come in their school trousers and shirt.

Make interview processes bitesize. Some students have poor literacy skills which has not been helped by Covid. Access to mentors who can help them write letters, fill in forms or run a mock interview will help prepare them for the world beyond school.”

Students working at whiteboard

What skills should students develop as a result of work experience?

Lin Proctor:

“Students know the mark scheme for any exam they’re going to take. It would be helpful if they knew what the mark scheme was for an interview or assessment so that it’s not such a mystery. Being more transparent about what we want as employers.

We talk about ‘employability skills’ and expect them to understand what that is but they often don’t know what that means. There have been a number of young students that I’ve asked, ‘give me an example of when you’ve worked in a team’. They often say they don’t have one but, for example, it could include being in a band, playing football or being in a drama production.

If you have a student at a work experience event, it’s important to identify and educate them on those skills because many students don’t always understand when they’ve done well. For example, ‘That was some great creative thinking you did there or you worked really well with the team on that task’.

Be transparent with feedback. Many sportspeople receive constant, specific feedback on their form in order to improve their performance. If you can provide specific feedback to a young person on a frequent basis, starting small, you can make a huge improvement for them.”

Sarah Noble:

“To use initiative. As teachers we spend so much time telling students to sit down, follow the rules and comply. Employers should allow students to use their initiative and perhaps allow them to fail, letting them know it’s okay to learn from their mistakes.

Interpersonal skills. As a result of the pandemic, students at university have been learning through distance learning. Some are struggling to get into work as they have not been socialising or getting experience in the workplace. Simply interacting with another person without feeling nervous is a great skill.

How we market ourselves is also paramount to how people see us. Work attire can be sensitive so it’s about discussing what’s appropriate for the workplace without destroying a young person's self esteem.”

What makes a work experience opportunity attractive to young people?

Lin Proctor:

“One of the problems we encounter with young people is that they are unsure about what work experience looks like at a particular company. It would be good for companies to specify the types of skills that they will develop at a work experience event.

I advise students to do as many things as they can. The more things students know, understand, and the more skills they’ve acquired, the better they will understand what works for them. Try to focus on the skills they will take away from work experience at the company.”

Sarah Noble:

“It’s got to be well planned. There’s no point just having a student for five days, the last thing you want is for them to be making tea all week. You’ve got to make sure everyone is accounted for and that the tasks are varied and engaging. They should feel that they have a meaningful role with impact.

Students need a role that they are genuinely interested in otherwise they’re not going to turn up. I used to work in schools and we would have 250 students to put on placement but it's very difficult to place students in a role that they want due to capacity.

Students need role models within that company that they can relate to. Whether that’s in terms of age, race, gender or ethic background. I think for young people to feel like they can fit in, they need someone to look up to.”

Post-it note planning

What can companies do to ensure their work experience is valuable for young people?

Lin Proctor:

“I would start small. I would look at sourcing a local careers lead at a school or using providers like Uptree and be clear on what kind of students you’re looking for. They’ll work with you to provide you with students that will get the best experience out of it. You want it to be a great experience for the young people but it also needs to be a good experience for the employee volunteers for them to want to do it again.By building a relationship you can effectively get students that fit well. For example, a student may not be confident enough to apply but the school may feel that they have the skills to succeed.”

Sarah Noble:

“Deciding on the structure of your work experience is really important. Is it going to be face-to-face, virtual or hybrid? You need to think about who’s going to oversee which activities. One person leading on the planning of a work experience day can be quite onerous, but sharing out amongst the team can help with this. Try rotating a young person around different teams to give them a taste for other areas as this will also help them to develop more skills.

Think about what resources you have. You’ve got to work within a certain parameter. There’s a link to capacity when planning an event. Ask yourself how many people you can have working on the event. For example, if you want to go off-site, do you have the people and resources to support that? Decide how many days you can realistically offer. Don’t over promise, and focus on quality over quantity.”

Concluding tips

We’d like to thank both Lin and Sarah for taking the time to share their valuable insights and expertise.

In summary, it’s important to maintain a holistic awareness of the barriers that students are facing. Companies should consider external factors such as money, family dynamics and mental health amongst other things. With these in mind, companies can gear their support towards alleviating barriers to raise students' confidence in applying for roles.

Have impactful experience opportunities for the students. Companies should maintain an awareness of the skills students will get out of their work experience event (for example: teamwork, creative thinking, interpersonal skills). It’s important to let students know clearly, when they are putting these skills into practice. Providing regular feedback will allow them to identify where they’ve grown, boosting their work profile for the future. Part of this discussion is also letting students fail, failure is a fantastic learning opportunity.

Quality over quantity. Companies should maintain an awareness of their resources and plan their work experience to make the most of them. Going beyond any limitations will have an impact on the learning outcome of the experience and potentially impact a student's view of the company.

Give them a holistic impression of company culture and what it’s like to work in a particular industry. It’s just as valuable for students to realise that they’re not on the right path, helping them along their career journey. Companies should consider a more bitesize approach to teaching them about application processes and what they’re looking for.

To find out the optimum time to engage with students, download our latest Student Outreach Calendar.

By Uptree
Published on: Wed 10 Aug 2022

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