Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Shared experience

I've been thinking about work experience. Mainly, the type many of us participated in at school. 

When I was 15 I was sent off for two weeks to work in a primary school almost two hours, two whole buses and a bit of a walk away from home. I thought at this stage that I wanted to be a teacher (actually, that's what my school wanted me to do: I had my heart set on journalism or even joining the Police, but as an A levels and University hopeful they had me pegged as an educator of the future.) 

Despite the travelling and uncertainty of why I'd been sent there, I enjoyed the experience, mainly because I was working with six year olds (some say I had finally reached my intellectual level, ha ha) and a class teacher who was clearly dedicated to and cared greatly for the children in her care. 

However, it did make me realise I very definitely didn't want to be a teacher.

My daughter got to do possibly the best work experience anyone could hope for- two weeks working with the crew on a Harry Potter film. Again, due to location and working hours on set, she was out for work by 6am and not home til gone 9pm. She was challenged, put straight on a few things, and her ideas were recognised and rewarded where they added to the team's achievements. She did fiddly, fussy, tedious and essential jobs, loaded cameras, made coffee, ran messages, cleaned trailers and fulfilled some pretty ridiculous and ridiculously basic requests.

She says it was the best two weeks work she's ever done, precisely because it was so difficult at times and she felt what she did mattered.

I was shocked when my 14 year old son came home a while back and said he wasn't able to do work experience because "too many people treated it like a fortnight's dossing about." 

I cast my mind back. Three hours travelling plus 7 hours of wrangling 25 six year olds was not what I'd call 'dossing about.' There's a fundamental lack of respect here for both work experience and those participating in it, and I've taken the issue up with the school, who say they're following new Government directives.

We're hearing so much from Whitehall about youth employment (and more relevantly, unemployment) including some seriously half-baked initatives to get work placements and apprenticeships working properly, and so to float ideas like this is bloody ridiculous. 

Last month, the CIPD asked members in its regular mini-poll: Should compulsory work experience be reintroduced in schools?

A total of 886 people voted, and the results were encouraging. 82.17% said Yes, and only 13.43% replied No. (4.40% were 'Not sure', the indecisive little devils.) 
I am in that 82.17% that would love to see students get out there and show us their potential. Reintroducing work experience would be a great start towards tackling the issue so many businesses raise about the 'appalling lack of skills' in our 'unemployable' young people our education system spews forth year on year, but it has to be positive, varied and challenging experience that isn't two week's photocopying, filing or sweeping up the workshop- and that's down to employers to realise. 
Too many employers don't know what they want until they experience not getting it. They expect candidates who are workplace-ready straight from the classroom, without contributing anything to the process that might see us get closer to that dream. Regular readers may recall this is something I've had plenty to say about in the past. 
But you know, this really matters.
Remember yourself at 14, 17 and 20. You didn't know it all- though you thought you did. You had great ideas- but they often went unvoiced, unheard, undeveloped. You had some terrible ones too, and hopefully someone showed you why before you made too much of a mess. 

You had better things to do than sit in dry meetings endlessly talking about things that could be decided in no time with a more energetic, less process-bound approach.  You didn't see why a two hour talking shop was needed to come to the very conclusion that was staring everyone in the face. It was boring, and it stopped everyone doing more fun stuff.
You needed to be managed, monitored, taught and given a talking to when needed. You needed to know what their expectations were. Your attitudes and behaviours were shaped by people taking time to teach you- encouraging, praising, challenging, criticising and developing you. You were a blank canvas, and the image you present today is one created by experience, choices and events. 

Perhaps our focus should be on delivering the best possible opportunities for the next generation to paint their own masterpiece?

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