Work experience a bridge to employment for generations of school pupils

Apprentice baker Stephanie Dick with Eddie Marshall of Marshall's Family Bakery. Picture: Michael Gillen
Apprentice baker Stephanie Dick with Eddie Marshall of Marshall's Family Bakery. Picture: Michael Gillen

Choose a job that you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

High school pupils from the Falkirk district would do well to recall those wise words from Chinese philosopher Confucius when they select their own work experience.

21-05-2014. Picture Michael Gillen. FALKIRK. Forth Valley College. Senior managers from oil and gas sector get a taste of what is like to be a Modern Apprentice. Pictured is Forth Valley College Principal, Dr Ken Thomson taking part. Pictured with Ross Ferguson Alexander Dennis apprentice (blue) and Craig Hepburn B.P. apprentice (orange).

21-05-2014. Picture Michael Gillen. FALKIRK. Forth Valley College. Senior managers from oil and gas sector get a taste of what is like to be a Modern Apprentice. Pictured is Forth Valley College Principal, Dr Ken Thomson taking part. Pictured with Ross Ferguson Alexander Dennis apprentice (blue) and Craig Hepburn B.P. apprentice (orange).

From garage mechanics to travel agents, butchers to newspapers, and all things in between, there are a range of businesses looking forward to welcoming in youngsters 
looking for their first taste of the world of work.

There’s much more on offer than just dull office jobs. Among those giving potential recruits a try-out is the British Army. Six pupils from Grangemouth High, all with an interest in a future career in the forces, last week had the chance to join an ‘insight’ course based at Redford Barracks in Edinburgh.

Among them was fourth year pupil Lewis Hutton.

“The Army work experience has changed my idea for the future,” he said.

“The recruitment team took us to different places - we went to Dreghorn Barracks for shooting and an assault course. We also had a night exercise where we had to steal a piece of equipment and head back to our own base.”

S5 pupil Michael Whelan said it was a chance to do experience something different.

“It was inspirational and challenging,” he said. “I would say if you get the chance to go, take it, or you would regret it.”

Perceptions of work experience have evolved in recent years. While some might view it as a handy excuse to miss class for a few days or skive off, it performs a vital role in helping school leavers find a job – especially in a time of high youth unemployment.

Proving your capability at a young age can give you the edge when it comes to a future interview.

Last week, the British Chamber of Commerce called for work experience to be made universal in all secondary schools after a survey found that nine out of 10 firms thought school leavers were not ready for employment.

Three-quarters of the companies surveyed blamed the situation on a lack of work experience. More than 50 per cent said young people did not have even basic skills such as communication.

All Falkirk high schools encourage their pupils to undertake at least one week of work experience, but it is not currently a mandatory requirement.

Around 74 per cent of S4 pupils at Falkirk High undertook work experience last year, and new placement opportunities are being extended to senior pupils in S5 and S6 across all schools.

“This is an exciting time for the whole work experience agenda as it is being looked at closely by the Scottish Government,” said Steve Dougan of Falkirk Council.

“A recent report from Sir Ian Wood has highlighted the need for good careers advice and appropriate opportunities for young people to experience the workplace.

“Within Falkirk we are doing our outmost to make sure that this experience for our young people is both relevant and timeous and allows real progression into a positive destination.

“We have already moved to a more flexible model of work experience. Pupils now undertake their placement at an appropriate point during the senior phase (S4-S6).

“In some cases, this may be the classic one week placement, and for others it may be a longer term placement, or one day per week over a period of time.

“The key aims are that they will allow young people to develop skills which will help them as they progress on to the world of work.”

The tradition of spending one week of the term at a local business dates back to 1973 when the school leaving age was raised to 16 and all pupils were expected to complete fourth year, allowing more time for extracurricular activities.

There are several businesses across the district with a long history of welcoming pupils for work experience, with some then going on to join them on a permanent basis.

Among them is wholesale butchers Malcolm Allan, which recently moved into expanded premises in Larbert.

Gordon Robinson, financial controller at Malcolm Allan, said that work experience placements were beneficial to both pupils and employers.

“One of our values is to provide jobs to local people as much as we can,” he said. “Work experience prepares pupils, it gives them an idea of the workplace and the behaviour required.

“It works both ways. We like to think we are a good employer, and those that come here on placement will hopefully go away thinking about a future career with Malcolm Allan.”

Gordon did his own work experience in the bicycle department at the Falkirk branch of Halfords - something of a departure from his future career.

“I think placements are a lot more structured now,” he added.

One industry in which work experience has long been an important step on the career ladder is journalism.

The Falkirk Herald regularly welcomes youngsters from all district high schools for a five day insight into the workings of Scotland’s biggest selling weekly newspaper.

They accompany staff on reporting jobs as they visit courts, council meetings and much more besides.

Reporter Kirsty Beaton is one of a number of former ‘workies’ who have made the step up over the years from shy student to important members of the editorial team.

Not all Falkirk Herald staff spent their placements in newsrooms, however.

Reporter Scott McAngus completed a week at a workplace unlikely to appeal to many youngsters - an abattoir in his hometown of Bathgate.