Is work experience elitist?

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digital-teaching-jisc-acThis Easter holiday, I – like many other students I  imagine – have been applying for work experience over the Summer Holidays. I’m interested in a career in media in journalism, so, through what seemed like a rather long process, I set about listing newspapers, radio stations and broadcasting companies, writing a multitude of covering letters, and brushing up my CV.

But as I was going through this process, something dawned on me. These places are all in London, or at least the majority of them. Unfortunately for me, I happen to live in Leicester, which although not more than an hour and a half’s one-stop train ride away from the capital, is more than a £40 return-ticket-per-day away.  Although I’m not completely stupid, and had realised this before, I hadn’t quite appreciated what this would entail in terms of travel costs, and my heart sank a little.

The majority of ‘Work Experience’ placements come with no expenses funded: that’s no travel costs, no accommodation costs and no food costs.  Even the BBC, a government funded organisation, offers a widely sought after work experience scheme that features no expenses paid. As I did the maths, my heart sank further. Even just a working weeks’ worth of train tickets to London, with a student railcard, booked months in advance, would be well over £200, excluding costs like food and tube travel, and I don’t even live as far from London as many people.

What’s more, I have no idea what hours I could be asked to work (that is to say, if  I’m successful in any of my applications), making travelling home in between days potentially unfeasible, not to mention unsafe, meaning the only alternative would be to find accommodation in London. I like many people, don’t have relatives living in London, nor do I have enough spare cash to fork out for a hotel or hostel. You see my problem.

But the problem is, it isn’t just my problem: it’s a problem faced by thousands of ambitious bright young things looking for all kinds of work experience in all kinds of sectors, whether it’s politics, government or business to name a few. We constantly hear it: ‘you need experience’ they tell us, ‘a degree doesn’t get you far these days’, but for so many, even if they are lucky enough to get a placement (work experience in itself can be elusive enough in certain sectors), the financial reality makes this desperately difficult. Unless you have a pretty disposable income, or very generous and wealthy parents, work experience in the city is a greasy pole to climb.

We constantly hear it: ‘you need experience’ they tell us, ‘a degree doesn’t get you far these days’

Now I should probably be clear here. By work experience, I mean something different from ‘Internship’. These are much longer, often most of a student summer, also in London, but almost always funded and often paid, in things like marketing and finance. But not all career paths and sectors offer this kind of experience. For many, like journalism and media, the only kind of experience is short fortnight or week-long placements gained through speculative applications. It is these that are unfunded. It should not be the case that people unable to pursue a particular career on account of this.

There are, however, a number of work experience ‘access’ schemes specifically aimed at those from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. A small number of companies and organisations offer work experience exclusively to this category. The New Statesman for example, says on its website, that after thinking ‘long and hard’ about how best to target their work experience scheme, they are working with selected charities to offer placements to students from low income families and ‘will no longer be offering general work experience placements’.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is great, and certainly one step towards easing access. However, the problem is, unfunded work experience placements do not just bar access to the poorest (though these surely are the worst affected), they threaten excluding vast majority of young people.  In this case, making work experience only available to one particular group could actually have the counter-productive effect of exacerbating this.

Instead, industries like media, publishing and politics, based in London, that don’t commonly offer funded internships, should consider investing a small portion of their funds in work experience schemes. These could be set programmes, offering maybe 5-10 people per year per placement, selected through a structured application process. Though this might make gaining experience slightly more competitive than speculative applications, at least opportunities would be awarded to applicants boasting the greatest merit and not the deepest pockets. Failing that, the government could provide investment in a range of sectors, not just finance, to fund such placements.

If they want to reduce youth unemployment, surely this is worthwhile.  One thing, however, is sure: work experience, in many sectors, is an expensive business, and this means that it is elitist. This has to change.

Photograph: www.jisc.ac.uk via Creative Commons

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