Commentary

Virtual employer encounters: making work experience work in the context of Covid-19

Laura Bell

Work experience has long been recognised as an important element of skills development and school-to-work transitions for young people, but the Covid-19 pandemic has created unprecedented barriers to accessing placements. Here, we explore the value of virtual employer encounters and work placements for careers practitioners helping young people to build their employability skills and progress their career journeys in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

As careers practitioners, we know that work experience placements, as well as employer workshops and secondments, can be hugely valuable to young people transitioning from education into the world of work – and indeed for those re-entering the workplace or looking to move into new industries. For young people in particular, it can provide direction with careers decisions, and help them to gain the skills and experience necessary to enter the working world: in the 2020 Youth Voice Census, 86% of the young people surveyed felt that work experience helped them to make decisions about their futures, while 45% cited a lack of experience of as their key barrier to gaining employment.[1] Moreover, among those surveyed who had spent time not in education or employment (NEET), increased access to work experience was identified as a key element of support that they wished to receive.[2]

 

The impact of Covid-19 on work experience placements

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly affected the ability of employers to deliver work experience programmes and placements – with social distancing, additional health and safety measures, furlough schemes and remote working making it highly impractical for young people to go into workplaces for planned in-person experiences. The Sutton Trust found that between March and July, 61% of employers cancelled some or all of their placements, with only about one third of firms continuing to offer their usual placements either in person or online.[3] Moreover, with increased lockdown measures across much of the country and continued economic uncertainty, almost half of surveyed organisations anticipated that there will be fewer such opportunities within their businesses over the course of the next year.[4] With restrictions likely to be in place for many months, we need new, agile and responsive thinking on ways for young people to gain knowledge of new industries, and to gain valuable skills and experience – without being physically present.

 

Virtual employer encounters helping to bridge the gap

In response to this need, the careers team at Education Development Trust has developed a series of ‘virtual employer encounters’ to enable those missing out on traditional work experience placements to interact with employers and learn more about different businesses. These encounters also help the schools and colleges we work with to work towards Gatsby Benchmark 5 (‘encounters with employers and employees’). In our model, employers give a live online presentation on their business and role, and participants have the opportunity to ask questions about the industry, skills development and potential career paths. Some of the questions are also submitted in advance, in order to allow employers to give considered responses that will be most valuable to participants, but the ability of young people and employers to quiz each other live helps to ensure engaging, dynamic and helpful interactions between them. The 45-minute online sessions are organised, facilitated and chaired by our school and college careers advisers, in collaboration with participating schools and colleges. This means that all sessions factor in safeguarding guidelines and that qualified, experienced advisers are able to provide signposting and field any questions on behalf of the employers, who may not be used to working with young people.  The sessions have received excellent feedback from employers, participating students and educational establishments alike.

An additional feature of the virtual employer encounters project has been the ability to use the employer sessions as part of our wider CPD programme. We have been able to invite careers advisers working across several our other contracts to join the sessions to hear what leading employers are saying and how they are responding the challenges of the current employment landscape. Our advisers have then been able to apply these up-to-date insights to their own practice.

 

Virtual work experience programme roll-out

However, while virtual employer encounters are hugely valuable in enabling young people to find out about different industries and options available to them, especially in the current circumstances, there is also room for deeper engagement with employers, which more closely resembles traditional work experience. For this reason, we are also developing a week-long virtual work experience programme. To date, this has to date been trialled with one employer, but we are now building on this success to create new channels for practical insight into the workplace – helping schools to achieve Gatsby Benchmark 6 (experience in the workplace) within the constraints of current public health measures and restrictions.

Of course, as careers professionals, we must consider the limitations of such a model. For example,  we must recognise that the most disadvantaged young people may lack access to a suitable device and sufficient internet connectivity for online sessions or virtual work experience, and encourage schools and colleges to make use of device or dongle loaning services to enable the most vulnerable students to access these opportunities. Careers guidance and provision can also be provided remotely via telephone where internet access is not feasible – a service we have also provided in our careers programmes at Education Development Trust. Moreover, we must acknowledge that virtual encounters and placements are unlikely to give identical levels or types of workplace exposure and skills development to a traditional, in-person placement, and that they will not lend themselves well to some industries. However, these encounters do provide strong alternative opportunities where traditional models are infeasible or pose a high risk to public health, and may thereby help to reduce the impact of the pandemic on young people’s career journeys and decisions.

This approach has arisen out of pragmatic responses to the pandemic, but some of its benefits may be valuable to young people in the longer term. For instance, virtual work experience or employer encounters allow students to access different aspects or departments of companies, where they may have been restricted to one department, site or location in a traditional placement. Virtual delivery can also take place outside of traditional time constraints such as specific weeks allocated by a school or college. Because employers and students are able to communicate online (for example, by email or via platforms such as Google Classroom), they are more able to do so at convenient times, such as after school hours or over an extended – and perhaps less intense – period outside of academic term-time.  Questions, projects and feedback may be logged on shared online platforms for convenient (asynchronous) access, complimented by regular virtual meetings or calls. This may be particularly helpful where learning establishments are reluctant to release students for extra-curricular activities, especially in light of the extensive loss of classroom time over the course of this year. 

Significantly, online employer encounters may open up opportunities outside of a student’s immediate locality and networks. By exposing them to companies and industries which may not exist in the areas where they live, these encounters may help to broaden their horizons and raise their aspirations, making them a valuable channel for employer engagement, careers decisions and social mobility efforts beyond the current crisis.

The ongoing pandemic undoubtedly holds many further challenges for young people and the careers and employability practitioners who work with them, but we believe that responsive and agile solutions such as this hold real potential to help young people make the best of the current climate, providing them with valuable tools to guide them in their career and employability journeys.

 

 

[1] Youth Employment UK (2020). Youth Voice Census Report 2020. Available at: https://www.youthemployment.org.uk/dev/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2020-YEUK-Census-Report_FINAL.pdf

[2] Youth Employment UK (2020). Youth Voice Census Report 2020. Available at: https://www.youthemployment.org.uk/dev/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2020-YEUK-Census-Report_FINAL.pdf

[3] Holt-White, E. & Montacute, R. (2020). COVID-10 and Social Mobility Impact Brief #5: Graduate Recruitment and Access to the Workplace. The Sutton Trust. Available at: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Access-to-the-Workplace-Impact-Brief.pdf 

[4] Holt-White, E. & Montacute, R. (2020). COVID-10 and Social Mobility Impact Brief #5: Graduate Recruitment and Access to the Workplace. The Sutton Trust. Available at: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Access-to-the-Workplace-Impact-Brief.pdf