LIKE lots of workplaces, universities welcome secondary school pupils for work experience, and every year I have one or two who join our research team to learn about what we do. Recently this hasn’t been possible due to Covid-19 regulations. Even workplaces that have remained open throughout the pandemic have been less able to accommodate placements. Tens of thousands of school pupils in Scotland have either missed out on work experience or had to do it online.

This may be another loss for pupils who have missed at least six months of in-person learning during 2020 and 2021. It affects those in S4 and 5 in Scotland over the past two school years, and many more school pupils in other countries who rely on work experience to build up their CVs before they enter the job market, or to contribute to personal statements to enter college or university.

Whether you can replicate in-person work experience online is an important question. So I explored this with an S5 pupil who has been spending this week with me to find out more about research and investigating new topics. She looked into what work experience is usually like for school pupils in Scotland, the benefits, how this can be replicated online and what young people think as we look ahead.

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In 2008 the Scottish Government commissioned a report on this topic. It argued that work experience plays an important part in preparing young people for adulthood by providing opportunities for them to develop skills they will need for their future life. For many, it is their first opportunity to spend time in a real workplace, away from their peers in a new environment and provides an opportunity to learn more about themselves, as well as finding out about the world of work. Since then things have evolved, but for most secondary school pupils at least a week’s work experience is part of the curriculum and schools play an important part in facilitating placements for pupils.

While some young people work while at school before the statutory school leaving age, this is a minority so there are a number of important benefits that a stint in the workplace can provide. These include developing some insight into work environments and what employers expect, even if that mostly involves observing what employees do rather than getting involved in hands on work.

Even a week of work experience can help young people decide if a certain type of employment is right for them, and influence subject choices if they are staying on at school. Sometimes work experience leads to part time or casual employment opportunities or volunteering. Most of all, studies of work experience suggest it provide an opportunity for young people to ‘try out’ workplaces and be exposed to an environment beyond school that involves turning up on time and organising themselves.

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Scroll back to 2020 and the current context, school pupils have not been able to find placements involving in-person work experience from construction sites to offices or health care settings.

Covid-19 has stopped all or most of that. The alternative has been virtual meetings and courses, that schools and employers in Scotland and elsewhere have worked hard to identify or develop. So what are the positives and negatives of online work experience?

On the positive side it’s global rather than local. If school pupils have good access online (which is by no means all) they can spend time in meetings or online platforms provided by organisations elsewhere in the UK or overseas. It’s also usually free – there are no travel costs for a pupil who may struggle to find a train or bus fare for a placement beyond their locality. There are transferable skills as many businesses intend to continue home or remote working post pandemic, so young people finding out how to do this now is no bad thing. It’s also possibly easier to get a quick sense of whether a particular line of work is of interest by organising a work experience week with a few online taster sessions. Well-designed online courses can also yield real benefits, building knowledge and skills.

Employers in Scotland along with education and youth organisations have worked together to refine and improve online work experience. This includes recommending a proper induction meeting (rather than the usual ‘oh you’re here – welcome, now follow me and just observe’ model in some workplaces) and forward planning for online meetings, interviews and interaction with employees. Online work experience also encourages employers to prepare tasks in advance for the placement pupil, with a deadline and feedback. It’s also contributed to the creation of videos, webinars and social media content from employers specifically directed at school pupils and school leavers.

The work experience pupil who has been with me this week set up an online survey and sent it to her friends. OK – it was a small sample of 17 pupils who had placements with employers this year. But when asked what would improve their work experience, a key point was to make it as interactive as possible. Simply viewing information or listening to webinars or meetings was not as valuable as one to one or small group discussions, supported tasks or question and answer sessions. But another key point the placement students made was that what would improve work experience would be to do it in person.

I look forward to next year, when I’m optimistic that we’ll have a teenager join my research group for face to face work experience as before. Our young people have lost so much during this pandemic. Let’s hope all employers have adequate support to offer young people more opportunities, both in person and online, in the months and years to come.

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