Student work experience placements should be relegated to history, says McDonald's chief people officer

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There was a time when the annual HR calendar was arranged around a comfortable, familiar cycle: wakes weeks in the summer; the graduate milk round in the autumn; and the CIPD conference in Harrogate. All now just hazy memories.

However, the time has come for us to relegate to history yet another feature of the HR year in many organisations: the student work experience programme.

The kind of programme where schools and colleges arrange for a young person to come into the workplace for two weeks in June - traditionally a quiet time on both the commercial and academic calendar - to experience for the first time what the next 45-plus years holds in store for them.

And we need to rethink our approach to work experience because young people face a range of barriers to the workplace, key among which has been a rapid fall over the past 10 years in the number of part-time entry-level roles - a trend that has been widely reported as "the death of the Saturday job".

At a recent conference I asked the employers present to raise their hands if they had had a Saturday job of some description. Most did. But when I asked how many of them now offered this sort of opportunity, few hands showed.

Research by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills shows the majority of employers that have recently recruited young people find them to be well prepared for the workplace. However, where levels of preparation are felt to be poor, the overriding issue is a lack of work experience. So replacing those opportunities for gaining experience that used to exist in the form of the Saturday job is clearly the priority target we should all be aiming at.

In practice, hitting this target has been difficult, with little more than a quarter of employers having offered work experience placements in the past year. The two biggest barriers perceived were the lack of suitable roles and the fact that local schools, colleges or universities were failing to approach employers to request support with work experience.

These are not insurmountable if we do two simple things. First, we need to challenge the traditional view of work experience as being a two-week placement at a certain time of the year. Not only is this constraint increasingly impractical for many employers but often it fails to give a young person the breadth and depth of experience they need.

Instead, we need to think of it in a broader sense, as a series of varied interactions that include mentoring, challenges and competitions, site visits, mock interviews, and talks in schools and colleges. These ought to take place alongside placements for students who have already gained an understanding of the environment in which they will be working.

Second, there is a need for business and education to create partnerships that provide more opportunities for young people. There are many examples of business and education working together, but with little more than a quarter of employers having offered work experience placements in the past year, there is scope to do more.

The Government has risen to the challenge. The Department for Education is committed to removing red tape that deters employers from offering work experience, and it is working across Whitehall to identify areas that can be simplified. HR now needs to rise to the challenge similarly.

Work experience in the form of a Saturday job or a placement for two weeks in June is something most of us will have benefited from when we were younger. We need to find ways to ensure today's young people are allowed the same opportunity.

David Fairhurst is chief people officer, Europe, at McDonalds

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