May 2009 issue

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Work experience in the UK

Work experience, whether paid or unpaid, is the perfect way to improve language skills and better future career prospects. Paid work is often restricted to the hotel and catering sectors, although providers offer unpaid placements in various fields of expertise including engineering and journalism.

The workplace is getting ever more competitive and experience prior to getting a paid job seems to be mandatory for students these days,” notes Karen Bowring, Managing Director of Professionals UK in Brighton. “Getting international experience gives them the added benefit of language development,” she adds.

The UK is an attractive destination for students looking to combine language study with a work experience placement and many language school providers offer bespoke packages that offer students the best of both worlds.

David Wilkins from United International College in London notes that their Cambridge Work Experience Programme has a definite advantage over a standard general English course. “We have seen students’ English and particularly levels of confidence improve beyond measure and beyond anything they would have learned in a traditional classroom,” he states.

However, he notes that the new points-based visa system (launched in March) has certainly shaken the sector up a little. No longer allowed to offer courses that simply team two weeks’ worth of tuition with a 26-week work placement for example, providers must now offer a balanced programme that comprises 50 per cent study and 50 per cent work. “From this year all courses have to be delivered at level three on the QCF (equivalent to A-level) and the work experience can only be a maximum of 50 per cent of the total course.”

Duncan Cameron from LAF in Brighton remains sceptical about the new system. He states that a sandwich course comprising of minimal tuition and a long-term paid placement was an inexpensive way for students to stay in the UK. “Personally I think it a pity to lose this [pathway] as in my experience the system was not abused and it worked smoothly,” he says [potential abuse of the system was cited as the reason for closing this visa route]. “The hotels got employees, students’ English improved and they were able to earn money, and the schools and agencies got an income.” He predicts that enrolments numbers will certainly dip as a consequence.

Twin WorkUK (the work experience arm of Twin Group) runs several developmental programmes including the Anglo Chef and Anglo Training programme – both specialising in offering EU nationals paid hospitality or catering work. Joanne Sayer comments that both models were launched after the company identified a skills shortage in the hospitality sector and she observes that it attracts a steady stream of applicants. A new programme that Twin WorkUK has launched is the Earn and Learn programme, which fits the new visa rules – students receive English tuition in the morning before a work placement in the afternoon. It is still in its early stages of inception.

“We launched this because more and more students want to study and do work experience at the same time but cannot afford to do volunteer work and so they are happy to improve their English in non-specific placements, which are usually in areas that look for temporary staff. This is very new and we are just getting our first bookings for it,” Sayer relates.

Specialist internship companies also assist international students in their quest to find relevant unpaid work experience and Bowring specialises in the unpaid work sector. She observes that marketing, communications and fashion are the most requested areas to work in.

Many providers report a Western European bias for these types of placements and Joe Solomon, Opus Programme Manager at Kaplan Aspect Career Services, notes that unpaid internships tend to attract German, Italian and French students, as well as some Japanese and Korean students while paid work is the preferred choice among German, French, Swiss, Swedish and Latin American students. Wilkins agrees and observes that other nationality groups are beginning to take interest in paid work abroad: “Paid work is significantly increasing in demand – most significantly from Asia, South America and Russia.”

Despite uncertainty, most work experience providers remain optimistic about the future of the sector. If anything, notes Bowring, unpaid placements are more in demand than ever. “I think unpaid placements are getting more popular, we have never been busier in the last two months – which is remarkable given we’re in a recession,” she muses. Meanwhile, Jayne Stroud at The Training Partnership says that requests for paid work now outstrips demand for their specialist Gap Year products. “I believe that paid work has influenced the former gap year students – students are prepared to work their way around the world earning a living, breaking down barriers and making new friends without necessarily relying on the assistance of their parents.”

The reciprocal benefits that paid or unpaid placements afford both student and host company are evident; while students gain a cultural insight into Britain’s work ethic, and may earn money, businesses also benefit from welcoming an intern into the fold. “A lot of companies now use work experience as a way of recruiting potential new employees, which of course can be a benefit to students with the right to work in the UK,” observes Bowring.
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