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An employer perspective on work experience: the hazards

October 2019

In the second of a two-part series, Emma Pollard turns her attention to the potential pitfalls that await employers when they offer work experience to students

Offering work experience provides many benefits to employers as discussed in part one, but there are some downsides to consider in the increasing widespread use of work experience in graduate recruitment.

Coping with student demand

Can employers absorb the demand for work experience from HE students and across the UK and across the industrial spectrum? Our recent review of the student finance system indicates that many students expect to work and gain work experience while in HE, highlighting a high demand for paid work opportunities.1

The Sutton Trust study in 2018 found 39% of graduates they surveyed had undertaken an internship, with many doing more than one.2 The 2019 Institute for Student Employers (ISE) recruitment survey reports an average of 40 applications per placement and 33 per internship vacancy, which is only slightly lower than found for graduate vacancies.3

This HE student demand is set against a demand from a wider group of young people on alternative pathways. There has been a strong government policy push towards raising the profile and availability of vocational pathways - higher level/degree apprenticeships and T-levels - which require employers to provide significant on-site work experience.4 Also, the Employer Perspectives Survey 2016 suggests that twice as many employers seek work experience in their graduate recruits than actually offer it to students.5 Thus employers need to understand the range of work experiences they could offer to students, potential students and graduates, and should be encouraged and supported to provide more work experience.

The pressure for gaining work experience is placed on students early in their academic journey… leaving little room for them to try out different professions

Early pressure on students

Does the focus on securing work experience during studies risk pushing career decision-making too early in the HE experience before ideas, experiences and skills are fully formed? Work experience is a key pathway into employment, but this means real graduate selection is moving back to the point of deciding about work experience candidates.

The pressure for gaining work experience is therefore placed on students earlier in their academic journey, and to secure this experience they need to demonstrate a clear career ambition and to be well informed. At this stage students may not have such fully formed ideas, leaving little room for them to try out different professions or to change their mind.

Reinforcing barriers to entry

Does work experience add another level of advantage to students with strong social networks, attending the universities that employers have close links to, and who can afford to work in lower paid placements? Although the work experiences described in our study were paid, many were at minimum wage levels and some were unpaid.6

Employers reported moving towards more formal, transparent and broader recruitment methods for their work experience opportunities, but informal approaches through networks and word of mouth were still common. Together these aspects can create barriers for some students. Research for the Sutton Trust finds unequal access to work experiences driven by concerns about affordability and difficulties with geographical mobility (as opportunities are not evenly distributed across the UK).7

Even with the move to formal recruitment approaches, this creates a catch-22 situation whereby students need work experience to gain work experience, which can further exclude certain students.

Too much of a good thing

Can work experience become 'work' and over-commit students? Can students have too much work experience? The nationally representative Student Income and Expenditure Survey (2011/12 and 2014/15) finds that over half of undergraduates do some form of paid work during the academic year and this can include formal placement activity as well as student initiated regular paid work.8 On average, students work ten hours a week, but some students work considerably longer hours.

Our review of the student finance system finds evidence that substantial term-time working - often driven by the need to help meet day-to-day living costs or minimise student debt - can impact negatively on perceived student wellbeing, on academic performance and ultimately retention. When work experience tips over into significant and sustained work it reduces time to study, and negatively affects concentration and focus on study.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects

Also in this series


  1. Understanding employers' graduate recruitment and selection practices, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015.
  2. Pay as you go? Internship pay, quality and access in the graduate jobs market, Sutton Trust, 2018.
  3. Inside student recruitment 2019: findings of the ISE recruitment survey, ISE, 2019.
  4. Industry placements and T Levels - stepping up to meet the skills challenge,  Newton B and Williams J, 2018.
  5. Employer Perspectives Survey 2016: research report, Shury et al, 2017.
  6. Understanding employers' graduate recruitment and selection practices, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015.
  7. Pay as you go? Internship pay, quality and access in the graduate jobs market, Sutton Trust, 2018.
  8. Student Income and Expenditure Survey 2011/12: English-domiciled Students, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2013; and Student income and expenditure survey 2014 to 2015: English report, Department for Education, 2018.

The IES on graduate recruitment involved in-depth engagement with more than 80 employers from a range of sectors and locations and included small employers as well as the usual suspects, i.e. the blue-chip companies that traditionally recruit graduates. Qualitative fieldwork also involved interviews with 30 stakeholders including representatives from HE careers services, policy bodies, graduate recruitment organisations, employer bodies and organisations supporting students and graduates. The study also included a literature review and analysis of key national data.

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