Jayne Dowle: Welcome to the hard world of work experience

There is something bothering my son even more than the challenge of his GCSE Maths exam. It's the prospect of his Year 10 work experience placement.

Work experience can be worthwhile and fulfilling for some, but not for everyone.
Work experience can be worthwhile and fulfilling for some, but not for everyone.

He has no idea what he wants to do or where he wants to go. This is despite my constant solicitations on the subject. I’m trying to help him gain the confidence to make a decision, but when you’re a not-very-academic 14-year-old boy in Barnsley it’s tough.

My personal favourite is for him to head to the local hospital or a similar healthcare setting. He’s got a winning smile, a kind heart and is good with people of all ages, from babies to the elderly.

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Either that or a nursery or school. Jack’s GCSE options include childcare. I keep trying to persuade him that nurseries and schools are crying out for male members of staff. And alternatively, experience in looking after children could stand him in good stead to undertake training as a nanny.

I tell him that there will be affluent families out there who would love a big strapping football-mad lad to look after their precious offspring. He could travel the world, I say. Visit places he has so far only dreamed of. For Jack’s part, he is having trouble envisaging how he might deal with taking two buses on one day.

I hope this is no fault of my own. I’ve tried to bring him up to be independent and self-starting. Yet, like so many of his peers, he is desperately lacking in confidence about taking
even baby steps into the adult world. He says it’s not helpful to remind him, but by the time I was 14 I was on my third part-time job – working in a newsagents. These days, there are so few things which under-16s can legally do for work. If this Saturday job route is effectively cut-off, we have to rely on formal education to organise an alternative.

We hear so much about the value of work experience. Successive education Ministers have banged on about how it gives teenagers confidence, helps them understand work culture, and promotes their own sense of maturity.

And a poll for the British Chambers of Commerce found that most employers are in favour of offering placements. Work experience is vital for equipping young people with the skills they need, said 79 per cent of business leaders surveyed.

However, more than a third – 36 per cent – admitted that their own firms offered no work experience of any description. Why is this?

And the problem is, as Jack would say, it’s got a bad rep. Translated, this means that young people have heard some proper horror stories about being used and abused by employers who stick them in a corner for two weeks and forget about them unless they fancy a cup of tea.

We have a family friend who is 16 and studying nursery nursing at college. Just before Christmas, I found her wandering up the road outside our house in the rain. She was on a placement at the local school and had been told she wasn’t eligible to order a school dinner, like many of the staff. Nor was it possible for her to eat her packed lunch in the nursery or kitchen, because of complicated health and safety rules.

She’s a stranger to the area and had no idea where to go. I know we all have to learn to stand on our two feet, but where was the basic human kindness here? I was incensed on her behalf.

When I was 16 myself, I organised three periods of work experience on local newspapers; in Sheffield, Wakefield and Wombwell, where there was then a local office for the South Yorkshire Times. I was as green as the hills and terrified of the chain-smoking, tough-talking journalists who seemed so wise and sophisticated.

Yet even on the newsdesk at the Sheffield Star, the toughest place of all, somebody managed to take out two minutes from shouting to tell me where the nearest café was. In Wombwell, the sassy female reporters who ran the office even took me to the pub and bought me my first-ever glass of wine.

Because I had such a positive experience of work experience, when I eventually found myself on the other side of the fence as an editor I always tried to be decent to the young people who came in to do a stint.

I knew what it felt like to be plonked at a desk and told to get on with something. I also knew that there was no value in it, either for them or me, if no one bothered to take the time to explain what that something might actually be.

This then is my plea. Employers, if a school or college approaches you to consider offering work experience this spring, please do your best.
And remember that work experience student you welcome could one day end up as your own boss. It’s happened to me, more than once. So treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and the rewards may go on forever.