When is experience of the world of work, actually experience of the world of work?

Any business that invests time, staff commitment and funding into careers related activities should be applauded and encouraged by those of us keen to engage. Most engagement activities usually fall into a well versed range of formats of interaction (from p20) that fit with the time and schedule commitments both parties are able to invest so new ideas and resources are always intriguing. This is why I noticed the launch of “The World’s first immersive work experience simulator: The LifeSkills Pod” from Barclays last week.

 

As a whole, the Lifeskills program is an outstanding corporate effort to offer young people insights into employability. I find the lesson plans very good and adaptable, the site offers applicable advice for young people, the ability to secure actual work experience placements is great and the backing they have received means they have been able to spread the word to parents as well through TV advertising.

The Lifeskills Pod looks like huge fun for students and the launch gained an enormous (for a careers resource) amount of press coverage in national titles such as the Guardian, the local press and digital focused publications. In all of those write ups, alongside the main positive PR message, journalists can’t also help but draw the conclusion that this resource only exists due to the insufficient number of work experience opportunities for students. The Careers leader of the school involved in the launch is quoted as voicing a problem all careers practitioners will be familiar with,

It was difficult to find quality work experience placements for the 270 students in the year group, said Simon Beck, the assistant head teacher of Lister Community school, with some students reporting they only made tea and had not gained any useful skills.

As a result, the school scrapped the work experience placement scheme and replaced it with a world of work week.

which is a fine solution but, ultimately, doesn’t help confront the problem of the mismatch between the demand for work experience and the scarcity of opportunities on offer to young people.

The demand from employers for prospective employees to have work experience completely exceeds the number of employers who actually offer work experience and that is even before the quality of the work experience placements on offer is considered. This conundrum was best highlighted by Sarah O’Connor writing in the FT about the Pod’s launch (for those without an FT log in, a screen shot is here).

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, a government-funded organisation, surveyed 18,000 employers last year and found that 80 per cent offered no work experience placements to schools. Yet two-thirds said work experience was the most critical factor when they recruit.

At which point we should ask how does the experience of the Lifeskills Pod measure up against the learning opportunities that real life work experience offers and where does it fit in the full range of “experience of the world of work” activities?

Vs actual work experience

In the Pod, students watch pre-recorded video on a TV screen, choose from a multiple choice set of actions to resolve an issue and interact with a large touch screen in a small room for around ten minutes. Many of the learning opportunities we would all recognise from traditional work experience are absent from this, the young person takes no responsibility for planning their journey to work to arrive on time, they do not learn to cope with the tiredness that comes from a longer working day, they do not see how colleagues interact with each other in professional situations, they do not have to adapt their body language to cope with different interactions etc. The feedback from the students in all of the articles indicates that they felt the virtual situations made them think about the professional course of action in each short scenario and is clearly positive but I fear that this does not mean that the experience was substantive enough to qualify as “work experience.” How much value, for example, would a prospective future employer confer to the inclusion of “attended a Lifeskills Pod session” on a CV compared to an actual period of work experience?

Vs “experience of the world of work”

If the Pod does not attempt to realistically mirror work experience, does it then offer students the benefits of experiencing the world of work similar to some of the other activities linked to above? The research from the Education & Employers Taskforce is useful here because it considers all experiences of the world of work and offers the Employer Engagement Cycle as a way of describing those benefits. For example the Pod could offer students the chance to improve their confidence and practice skills desired by employers in a low pressure environment that would enhance their Human capital skills. As the evidence from the Education & Employers Taskforce suggests though, the impact short, episodic, non assessed employer engagement experiences offer is considered to have little benefit to individuals. Where the real benefit from such experience comes from is in the Social and Cultural capital sections. The human networks gained from actual work experience are missing from the Pod experience, there is no individually tailored advice or interactions with older colleagues whose voices are seen as ‘authentic’ and there is no human link made to call back on for a reference or further opportunities later on in the student’s progression.

The media reporting of the launch is reductive but clearly positions the resource as a replacement for work experience rather than an employability resource.

lifeskillspod1

which is over-reaching the gains of the activity and, again, only highlights why such a resource would be needed in the first place, as O’Connor notes in the FT

The simulator is a nifty idea, but it is also a sign that too many employers are doing too little for the next generation.

The use of a range of employer engagement activities to supplement and support work experience is best practice careers work and advocated by all stakeholders in the sector such as the CDI and the Gatsby Foundation. It is the foundation of such initiatives as the London 100 hours challenge and offers both education providers and employers the greatest flexibility to get involved. Within the range of this engagement comes though a responsibility to properly signal what all stakeholders can expect from each activity. Overselling or overreaching the experience, benefits or likely outcomes of a resource or activity is only likely to lead to the perceived ‘gap’ in employability skills widening and stakeholders retracting from those activities which do require significant commitment such as actual work experience.

Which all means the Pod should be considered as a resource much like any other virtual, online careers experience. Used with students alongside a range of other activities (such as in the “world of work” week mentioned above) the Pod is a fantastically exciting resource, but this does not mean it should be seen as a solution for the lack of work experience placements currently offered by UK businesses to schools.

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