Creativity needed to tackle deficit in work experience

Over 5000 young people in Bristol need work experience every year

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees made it a manifesto commitment to ensure that every young person has a meaningful experience of work. But with over five thousand young people, in central Bristol alone, looking for work experience every year, he is going to need some creativity to deliver on this promise.

Fortunately a lot of people in the city share his commitment. Some of them met to share their ideas at an evening panel discussion last night hosted by Envision at the Bristol office of accountancy, investment management and tax group, Smith & Williamson.

On the panel (from left to right) Pete Martin, Customer Services Director, Highways England; Nick Lewis, Head of Fairfield High School; Councillor Claire Hiscott; Karl Brown, Bristol Learning City Partnership Board

Experience of work vs. work experience 

Bristol Energy, one of the companies present, is typical of many organisations that have the will to help, but are time limited. Michael Lloyd-Jones from the company explained

We are just a year old. We have thousands of customers already and we are growing really fast. That puts pressure on staff time so we’re struggling to find a way to help this that is feasible and meaningful for young people and rewarding for staff.

On the other side of the equation, the problem is further compounded by the growing number of people looking for work experience. Mark Curtis, creative director of boomsatsuma creative said

Work experience can’t be about having all these people sitting with an employer for eight hours five days a week.  We need to be more creative.

Panellist Nick Lewis, Head of Fairfield High School, said that there is a place for businesses simply to come into schools and answer young people’s questions about what happens in their industry and bring work to life that way.

Fellow panellist Councillor Claire Hiscott suggested collaboration between companies in similar industries to share the burden. She provided strong examples of this working in creative industries within the city where students move across organisations, rather than departments, spending just a few hours work experience in each.

Jennie Butterworth, CEO of the education charity Envision, was keen to point out that experience of work doesn’t have to mean work experience.

Our Community-Apprentice programme gets employers involved to mentor young people at four points in a wider practical project where they can have the greatest impact.  Each time it’s only for an hour and a half. But it takes place in a workplace environment and we organise all the logistics making it easy for everyone involved.

Gemma Timmons, from the Careers and Enterprise Company, explained that the number of employer encounters is critical.  

We’re building up an evidence base of what works in careers education. Research shows that if a young person has just four interactions with a person from the world of work, that student will have a 16% increase in their future earnings than those who don’t. Providing four interactions should be a goal we can join forces to work towards achieving here in Bristol. We want to join up the dots to enable that to happen.

The need for better signposting emerged as a strong theme and many attendees were interested to hear about a new initiative being launched by Bristol Learning City, WORKS ( The initiative will enable businesses to pledge what they can offer in terms of work experience and mentoring on a new platform so that they can be linked with the schools that really need them.

With too may people looking for experiences, the need to target support is clearly important.

Above audience member from Highways England raised the question of how schools and business can better promote apprenticeships as an alternative to University 

Levelling the Playing Field

Panellist Pete Martin, Customer Service Director for Highways England said

In my experience, as a parent, young people are asked to find work experience for themselves. That perpetuates a divide. I think that there is the potential for businesses in this city to be more pro- active and offer up good quality work experience and to work with schools to target those harder to reach young people. I’m really determined that we do that and make those opportunities come alive.

Cabinet Leader for Skills and Education Councillor Claire Hiscott said 

Bristol is in Vogue, literally. It feels like every glossy magazine is saying Bristol is the place to be. It’s as though our streets are paved with gold. But the truth of the matter is that this city is so unequal. In some parts of the city you have an 85 percent chance of going to university, in others its just 5 percent. That is just wrong. It is wrong on every level; socially and morally. Economically it’s a disaster for this city because we have a skills shortage in this city.

Fellow panellist, Karl Brown from Clarke Wilmot said

Businesses can’t complain that there aren’t enough young people with employability skills if they’re not trying to actually make the effort to reach out to schools to help.  

As a former Chair of the Junior Chamber Karl organised mock interviews for young people from more disadvantaged areas.  He noticed that

These young people were often bursting with talent and enthusiasm, but they lacked the self-confidence and soft skills they needed to perform well in interviews or tasks like presentations.

Khaled (above) a graduate from our Community-Apprentice programme was present with fellow Grads to represent the voice of young people in the discussion 

Nick Lewis agreed;

I see talent every single day.  But I also know that the talent that’s in my school doesn’t have an equality of opportunity.  It’s absolutely crucial that businesses and schools say this is not acceptable in terms of social justice and in terms of wasted talent for this city.

We work hard to ensure that our more disadvantaged pupils access opportunities. One of those is Envision. For our students that aren’t doing Envision, half of them aren’t able to secure a work experience placement.  The ones that do Envision develop the soft skills they need to be able to go to employers and get a place. The result is three quarters get work experience so there’s a real difference being made. That’s lives being changed and young people being brought into the economy of Bristol as a result. This takes planning, preparation and commitment and that’s what we need to all do.