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An employer perspective on work experience: the highlights

October 2019

In the first of a two-part series, IES principal research fellow Emma Pollard considers the benefits to employers of offering work experience to students

A study by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) details how work experience is a key and growing interest for employers looking to recruit graduates and, although the research was undertaken in 2015, the benefits and challenges associated with work experience remain current.1

Work experience can be a formal part of the higher education programme (in the form of a placement or sandwich experience) or a student-initiated activity. It can take place during term time, vacations or after graduation. It can vary considerably in length and in relevance to the subject of study, and can be referred to variously as placements, internships or shadowing.

Nevertheless, most work experience (with perhaps the exception of very short 'tasters' or shadowing opportunities) involves doing a real job, offering real insight into the workplace, and a formal selection process that can mirror the recruitment process for permanent graduate vacancies. Most - though still not all - are paid.

Many employers offer work experience for students and graduates. We found the majority of employers consulted in our research offered some type of work experience, and the numbers of placements available were increasing and anticipated to increase further still.

More recently, the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) 2019 annual recruitment survey of its members, many of which are large and traditional graduate recruiters, found that 70% hired summer interns and 54% had students on longer (sandwich) placements - and the volumes of these opportunities have increased year-on-year until 2019 where numbers recruited fell slightly (particularly in energy and engineering sectors).2

Employer surveys indicate that the key reason for offering work experience is altruism in terms of providing a benefit to students/graduates

Research for the Sutton Trust in 2018, involving a YouGov panel survey of employers, found 46% of these offered work experience or internships and similarly the volumes of internships offered have increased.3 And the Employer Perspectives Survey (EPS) shows how the proportion of employers (across the entire employer population) offering placements for university students or graduates increased substantially from 7% to 21% between 2012 and 2016.4

Employer surveys such as EPS indicate that the key reason for offering work experience is altruism in terms of providing a benefit to students/graduates. Our work shows how offering work experience also provides employers with a number of direct benefits on top of accessing additional resource:

  • the opportunity to influence the development of the right skills and attitudes in students and graduates
  • the chance to build relationships with students earlier on in their student journey
  • the opportunity to assess individuals over an extended period.

Developing desired skills and priming 'work readiness'

Employers believe that work experience - including voluntary work and other university activities, as well as conventional employment - helps graduates develop the skills they require and thus helps them to perform better and 'hit the ground running' once recruited. It is useful in developing desired generic skills and attitudes such as communication and people skills, flexibility and resilience, as well as personal maturity, positive work attitudes, and business/commercial understanding.

This leads many employers to express a desire for work experience in their selection criteria as a marker for employability and a signal of serious career interest. The EPS Survey 2016 found 65% of employers (representing the entire UK employer population) reported relevant work experience was important in the recruitment decision (although just 38% offered any form of work experience, and just 11% offered placements to university students).

Yet the ISE survey indicates that few graduate recruiters set a minimum requirement around work experience (just 6% compared with 57% who set minimum requirements around degree classification). Work experience was also felt to help students and graduates to perform better in the recruitment process, particularly for those employers using competency-based selection techniques as individuals can draw on work experience to provide examples of applying certain skills and attributes.5

Reaching students earlier in their educational career

Employers can use work experience strategically to build relationships with students earlier on in their student journey. Many employers struggle with attracting the right applicants and competing against other recruiters - work experience can be a way to identify and 'lock in' talent ahead of the competition.

Our study found that increasing activity was directed towards first and second-year HE students rather than those in their final year of study. It can also be used to attract high-calibre graduates into industries or careers they may not have considered and help improve the employer brand as students returning to their universities from placements can act informally as company ambassadors.

Extended interview in a real work setting

Work experience has a long tradition of being used as a graduate recruitment method in its own right, particularly in high-skills-intensive and technical sectors and for small employers with limited experience of graduates/graduate recruitment. Employers can use the placement period to assess the potential of (essentially road-test) individuals as graduate recruits, their commitment to the company, and cultural fit, in a relatively low risk way.

Employers often look to convert interns into graduate employees (fast-tracking them through the recruitment process) and so focus on continued engagement with students beyond the placement period, which can involve offering holiday work, project work, further placements or sponsorship. Many graduates therefore end up working for their placement employer after graduation and prior employment is the most common method for graduates to find work. The ISE 2019 recruitment survey finds on average 47% of interns and 44% of placement students are recruited into graduate jobs in subsequent years.

Part two will take a look at the potential pitfalls awaiting employers when they take on students for work experience placements.

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. Inside student recruitment 2019: findings of the ISE recruitment survey, ISE, 2019.
  3. Pay as you go? Internship pay, quality and access in the graduate jobs market, Sutton Trust, 2018.
  4. Employer Perspectives Survey 2016: research report, Shury et al, 2017.
  5. ISE survey shows this to be the most common selection method in graduate recruitment, with 78% of members using this approach.

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