How to manage work experience placements

Practical advice on work issues.

We all know the jokes about work experience placements that involve making endless cups of  tea and doing everyone’s photocopying. Unfortunately, that is often the reality. Yet, work placements should be an opportunity to find out what a job is like, to put theory into practice and make contacts. And for the employer, it is an opportunity to have an extra pair of hands on deck and involve people who could turn out to be potential employees. If managed well, placements can benefit both parties.

So if you have someone coming in on a work placement, think about how to make the experience work for both of you. 

1 Communicate with the team
Let whoever will be involved with the person on work placement know they are coming in, how long the placement is for, what they are hoping to get out of it and what skills and experience they have to offer. There’s nothing more annoying for people than turning up to work on Monday with a busy week ahead to discover that a student is in on work experience and they’re expected to look after them. It starts the week off on a bad footing for everybody.

2 Get ready
Try to organise it so the person can start work as soon as possible. Make sure an office pass is ready so they can actually get into and move around the building and there is a desk or computer for them if that’s required. It’s also a good idea to have computer passwords set up in advance so you don’t both waste the first morning on the telephone to IT. Caroline Cawson, meaningful occupation manager at  London homeless charity, Broadway, says these logistics are often overlooked, resulting in frustration all round: “Make sure people have somewhere to sit, for example,” she says. It sounds ridiculous but I’ve seen people turn up and not have a chair.”

3 Make it meaningful
You don’t want the person to be hanging around looking and feeling useless, so make sure you and your colleagues have some tasks ready for them to tackle. Don’t just give them dud jobs like photocopying. If you give them useful tasks they will enjoy the experience more and you could tick a few things off your list. Cawson at Broadway says you should find out what they want to gain from the experience, particularly if it’s a long placement.
“Make sure people are clear about their expectations,” she says. “You have to look at what  they need to get out of the placements, what skills they are wanting to develop and so on.”
Short projects can be good, particularly if it is something that can be started and finished within the person’s time in the office. They are easier to assess and will give the person a sense of achievement. Be clear about what you want them to do and set objectives so that there aren’t any misunderstandings. Also, make sure they know who to go to if they have any queries or problems.

4 Delegate management
If there’s someone in the office who would like to gain management experience – or you think could do with it – let them take responsibility for the placement person. Cawson thinks this can be a very effective way of growing people into management roles. “It can be a good learning opportunity for someone,” she says. “Often, there is not an immediate jump for someone into managing people, so this can be a good way around that.”

5 Give  feedback
Don’t just pack the person off with various tasks and hope you won’t hear from them until their time is up. Give feedback along the way. This is particularly important if it’s a long term placement so that problems don’t build up. Also, ask them to give you their feedback about how it’s all gone in case you need to make any amendments to future schemes.

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