- Opinion Piece -

Work Experience from Home?

If COVID has been a catalyst for changing where and how we work, does it also mean we need to rethink how we provide work experience for secondary students?

According to the Department of Education, work experience is designed to provide students with the valuable opportunity to develop employability skills, explore possible career options, understand employer expectations, and increase their self-understanding, maturity, independence and self-confidence.

For many of us who completed our work experience last century and are now overseeing work experience placements, the model seems to have changed very little.  Before COVID there were already challenges in providing our local students with meaningful insights into the world of work and an understanding of what their careers could look like.

In Greater Shepparton we have 6,528 businesses but the breakdown is very interesting. Only 9 of these businesses employ more than 200 people, a further 166 employ between 20 and 199 people and 2,555 employ less than 20 people. The majority – 58% – of our local businesses do not employ staff.

Against this we estimate that each year approximately 1,000 Year 10 students at schools in Greater Shepparton are expected to secure a week of work experience. In most cases the placements are concentrated into the six weeks of school holidays.

It’s a tight supply and demand equation and it inevitably begs the question of whether the urgency to secure or agree to provide a place comes at the expense of understanding what’s happening inside more than 6,500 businesses and what could make a good fit for both parties.

Some of our larger employers have established programs that include an application and selection process and allows participants to progress through several departments during their placement.

Some of our local community and learning organisations are stepping in to improve linkages between our students and local employers. But under the current model, for most students their work experience opportunities will be determined by their family and social networks.

And then came COVID…

Last month, the Families in Australia Survey: Towards COVID Normal found that among the employed survey respondents, 67% were sometimes or always working from home, compared to 42% pre-COVID. Meanwhile, more than 40% of employed people regularly work from home, according to data released by the ABS, up from around 30% before the pandemic.

This national data will play out differently in Greater Shepparton where our top three employment sectors – health, ag and manufacturing – are dominated by roles that can’t be delivered from home. Nonetheless there has clearly been a shift in where many of us work and as a result our ability to provide a single block of work experience.

So if the changed work arrangements mean we need to rethink the model – why stop there? How can Greater Shepparton use work experience to expand our students’ understanding and aspirations beyond their existing field of vision – and show them a vision of the incredible trades and careers – not just jobs – that exist right on their doorstep.

The Goulburn Murray Local Learning and Employment Network’s (GMLLEN) report How Work Works has some very relevant observations on work experience and the forms it could take. It points to community and industry projects, placements shared across multiple employers or spread across the year which may better align with the seasonality of many of our industries. Expecting our students to coordinate this level of complexity seems very ambitious – we need to step up.

There may be some structural changes we’d like to see, but the good news is we don’t need to wait for governments, departments or our local schools to make the changes. Shepparton has proven its ability to work collaboratively to develop solutions that work for us and our region. Let’s take the lead and begin conversations within our business networks and with organisations already working in this space to explore what’s possible for our businesses, and importantly, what’s possible for our kids and their career aspirations.

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Lindy Nieuwenhuizen

Lindy Nieuwenhuizen