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Investment in work experience is an investment in the future prosperity of our next generation of customers.

The first work experience I had was at Ogden's Empire Stores in Wigan. My first job was peeling the prices off jars of jam, cleaning any residue from the sticky labels and applying a new - higher - price.

It was 1979 and inflation was running at around 25%, creating huge problems for my grandfather - the eponymous Mr Ogden - who had a number of shops in the Wigan and St Helen's area. "It's a sorry state of affairs, lad," he'd confided in me, "but at least we won't be rubbing our customers' noses in it by selling 'em jars covered in bits of old price labels."

In the years that followed I spent a lot of time in my grandfather's shops, learning about the disciplines required to run a successful retail business: attention to detail; customer service; team-working and team leadership; financial management; and - probably the toughest of all - how to earn the confidence of staff.

These are lessons I've drawn upon every day of my working life and I appreciate how lucky I am to have learned from a real master. It is this realisation that has made me passionate about the importance of high-quality work experience opportunities for young people.

Across the UK around 95% of young people, half a million a year, undertake work experience placements while they are still in full-time education. Since 2004, it has been a legal requirement for all students in England to experience work-related learning between the ages of 14 and 16.

Given my experience at Ogden's Empire Stores, you will not be surprised to learn the quality of the work experience places we offer at McDonald's has always been high on my agenda. But although the business has been delivering a formally structured, fully-documented programme for more than 15 years, I felt the time had come for a change.

At a time when youth unemployment is at record levels, I think every employer should be investing in the employability of our next generation of talent, equipping them with the skills they will need when they enter the workplace.

To some that may sound somewhat idealistic. After all, times are still tough, and the vast majority of work-experience students will not end up working for the organisation where they do their placement. But, as Henry Ford said: "An idealist is a person who helps other people to be prosperous." This was a statement he made to emphasise the pragmatism of his famous $5 dollar-a-day offer to workers who would accept the rigours of working on his innovative production lines. This pragmatism was rooted in the fact that if you were going to create a mass-market product, you needed to create a mass-market to buy it.

For me, an investment in work experience is an investment in the future prosperity of our next generation of customers. This is why, last month, I was thrilled to be able to launch McDonald's new work-experience programme, a scheme that can lead to a Level 2 BTEC Certificate in Work Skills (the equivalent of a GCSE grade B) awarded by Edexcel. This is the first time a major employer has embedded the requirements of a nationally recognised qualification into its work experience programme, and I believe it could raise the expectations of employers, educators and students.

Employers will be expected to deliver work experience placements of even higher standards. Teachers will have to prepare and support work experience students, following up on their placement with assignments that will embed their learning, while students will have to take work experience seriously, as part of their preparation for work.

I believe these expectations will help every organisation understand the value of work experience, and invest in it in the hope of seeing a long-term return. Granddad would have approved.

- David Fairhurst is senior vice-president/chief people officer, McDonald's Restaurants Northern Europe.