Running virtual work experience with schools in 2021

Mar 22, 2021 | Work experience/internships

As employers plan virtual work experience for 2021, Aimee Higgins from the Careers & Enterprise Company shares what we can learn from the last year.

In the last year, organisations have been forced to adopt new working practices, and reconsider what is essential to do in person and what can be done virtually. Education is no different and has arguably had to go through one of the most difficult and far-reaching transitions during this time. 

Despite the challenges, we have seen brilliant collaboration between schools and colleges and business to overcome barriers and continue to offer young people with experiences of the world of work. 

This is so important at a time of economic recovery – 78% of employers said that graduates who had completed an internship or placement were more skilled than those who had not (ISE’s Student Development Survey 2021). 

To tackle the growing youth unemployment landscape, we need more employers to step forward to offer young people these opportunities – they can’t learn and develop without the opportunities to practice. Fortunately, the innovation we’ve seen during lockdown in running virtual work experience has shown that this can be more flexible than ever before, making it easier for employers to participate.


Work experience is not always what we might think

The Gatsby Benchmarks are the international best practice standard for careers guidance and Benchmark 6 defines experiences of the workplace as follows:

‘Every student should have first-hand experiences of the workplace through work visits, work shadowing and/or work experience to help their exploration of career opportunities, and expand their networks’

So we need to move away from the traditional thinking that work experience can only be either a one or two week placement.  Models we’ve seen emerging include:

  • Site tours given virtually with opportunity for Q&A
  • Sharing the workplace experiences across a consortium of businesses so the young person spends half a day with each business
  • Project based experiences where students are set a challenge and they interact with the business over a school term (e.g. once per week) to share their work, speak with business colleagues, receive feedback and ultimately present to the business.

As the need for social distancing reduces, blended models, where part of the work experience is in person and part hosted virtually, will become more common.


Make it meaningful

We all remember the coffee making and photocopying tasks (which actually were quite helpful for office life!) but perhaps not the most engaging. Think carefully about what you want to get out of the work experience for your business – what myths are you trying to bust about your industry/business? What skills do you need young people to have when they enter your workforce? What can you show them that excites them about where your industry is going?

It’s crucial for the experience to include two-way interaction and the opportunity to receive feedback on their work and behaviour so that they have a meaningful experience.  This isn’t about one way information flow – they need to have the opportunity to learn and develop. 

Tasks could include creating a PowerPoint pitch on how your organisation can better advertise its job roles to young people or on how your organisation can improve its social media presence. 

Alternatively, you could have young people work in teams to come up with a strategy on what more your business can do to tackle climate change in the road to net zero (including interviewing staff for their views) or developing a new product line. 

Create a mix of interactions with some independent project work and meeting different colleagues across the business to share their career story and answer questions to help them with their project. This will bring the business and its culture to life, as explained by a participant in an IGD virtual work experience, “Being able to ask questions directly to the experts and hearing about their professional experiences really helps you understand and gain insights of your desired positions and future jobs”.


What have we learnt from virtual delivery?

In speaking with employers, the virtual work experience has brought new opportunities. They’ve been able to reach more young people and a more diverse range of young people geographically, attracting inner city to the coast and vice versa. We’ve also heard that young people have felt less daunted using the chat function to ask questions and therefore have gained more insights, leading to a more meaningful experience. 

For employees, virtual work experience has meant less time has been needed to facilitate and any issues could be addressed immediately. The virtual medium has, however, also presented some challenges. For example, it’s harder to gauge, without being able read non-verbal cues, whether the tasks you’re giving are stretching enough or too stretching, so consider giving the person a ‘buddy’ where they can test this in an informal chat. 

Schools and colleges have also highlighted how some young people may feel embarrassed by their home setting or non-school uniform clothes and hence be reluctant to be on video – consider this when encouraging interaction and be sensitive to these needs. 

And of course, digital poverty continues to be a challenge – whether that’s the lack of a device, a strong enough connection, or a suitable place to log in and participate – work with schools to try to overcome these barriers so no young person is left behind. 

A participant in a Morgan Sindall virtual work experience said, “It was an amazing experience that taught me a lot of new skills and helped me develop old ones. I also learnt more about construction and how to get into it. I have had an amazing week and have loved every minute. Thank you so much for organising it and I will definitely recommend it to others”. 


Support to take action

Experiences of the workplace are more vital than ever before for young people facing the prospect of unemployment and for businesses that will now need to attract the right skills in a post pandemic and Brexit recovery. 

Wherever the balance of our working practices ends up when the pandemic restrictions are lifted, we can say with confidence that the ‘zoom meeting’ and virtual collaboration are here to stay – work experience should reflect this way of engaging.

The Careers & Enterprise Company will be releasing new guidance for employers in April that showcases real life examples of how businesses have offered experiences during lockdown together with resources to help you plan your own opportunities – email if you’d like to be alerted when these are ready. They’re also hosting a webinar for employers to showcase best practice on Thursday 25 March.

Read more insight and advice on virtual internships


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