There used to be a great period of time for students called ‘work experience week.’ It was a time, usually during year 10 or 11 when every student had go out and find a business or organisation to work for. This was to gain experience and understanding of a workplace. Some schools still do this, which is fantastic, but many have let it slide into oblivion in favour of another ‘precious’ week of academics. Unfortunately, ‘results-obsessed’ principals see little value in the pursuit of non-academic results and are simply focussed on what magical final exam numbers they can get published in the newspaper each year.
However, I don't want to go off on the ‘end result’ tangent just yet, as that's a massive topic in itself. I want to explore the real value of work experience.
Some kids go out and get jobs as soon as they can, which is fantastic. I had my first job at 15 at a skeet shooting club and was paid $50 a day, which back then was huge money! Most kids in my school didn't do this however, and their first exposure to the workforce was through work experience week.
The experiences kids had varied from employer to employer. Some were great, as they were thrown straight into core business tasks. Others sat around photocopying or reading magazines because their employer didn't know how to delegate or integrate another person to the workplace. Sadly, many educators focussed on the latter experience as a means to justify getting rid of work experience week, rather than the amazing variety of positive learning experiences students had which were interesting, motivating and challenging for them.
Whilst specific workplace activities vary so much for work experience week, there are some common core features that provide benefits no matter what the working environment. Since it's not school, you learn that you have to turn up on time, dress appropriately and deal with adults in a whole new way. Starting to understand that you're not going to be spoon-feed everything in life can be a stark realisation for many students.
I ended up working in Parliament House in Canberra. The variety of activities and challenges was amazing. It was parliamentary sitting week and the place buzzed with excitement. I arrived early Monday morning and there was no real time to relax and ease my way into it. Stepping into the office, the activity level was fever pitch. The MP (member of parliament), dashed in and out of the office between meetings, media interviews, parliamentary question time and divisions (where a vote is called for in the house). Press releases had to be done, newspaper clippings had to be read and correspondence from constituents had to be responded to. As I was working for the leader of the opposition, I could see the complexity of the workplace, but also how that complexity was managed.
I was given the task of opening all the day’s correspondence, reading it and categorising it into different portfolios. I remember there were certain tags that had to be applied, positive mail (we’d solved a problem), concerned mail (please look at a problem) and hate mail (you're the problem). The exciting thing for me at 16, was that if the hate mail was really bad I got to put it on the Federal Police pile. Thankfully I only had one of those letters that week. I typed up a summary and then each letter was delivered to the staff member responsible for that portfolio for response. This wasn't just pointless busy work. Reading through people's concerns gave me a greater understanding of the process of government and what issues were affecting people in our communities.
Once I'd completed this task, it was straight onto the next one. There was hardly a moment to catch your breath in this office. I was directed to one of the media officers to read through all of today's clippings (all the newspaper articles which referenced the MP) and highlight positive and negative press, key political issues, any recurring themes etc. This took hours and it was under pressure of a deadline too as today's news, won't always be tomorrow's news. I briefed the media officer on what I'd found, which he already knew and had known for about two hours. I realised the pace at which I'd worked on this was nowhere near fast enough and whilst I'd come to all the right conclusions, the information was now old and had already been acted upon. This was a huge learning moment for me. I thought I'd done a great job of it, but I wasn't used to the idea of a deadline in an hour. I was used to being given two weeks’ notice and reminders that I needed to hand something in and chased for it, if I'd forgotten.
It amuses me now how whiny students get when they miss a deadline and you just give them zero without any chasing. I strongly believe this is the only way they're going to learn how to meet deadlines. Most schools hate it when you do this, because they're worried about parent phone calls and excuses. The reality of the workplace however, is that people aren't going to be reminding you of deadlines. It's up to you to deliver. I learnt from this work experience moment, you have to deliver on time, or else the work you do is worthless.
Through the rest of the week the challenges changed, as it was such an exciting and dynamic working environment. I got to sit in on meetings, go into question time, draft briefs on matters arising from media and correspondence and meet a whole range of diverse new people. If you asked me what I'd learnt during another week of my schooling, I'd give you a blank look. I couldn't tell you. The lessons were never as real as they were during work experience week. The aha moments just weren't there in the same way that they were during a week exposed to the real world.
Why any school would get rid of this baffles me. This should be a regular feature of year 10, 11 and 12 to provide students with a range of different workplace experiences. It can help students with career direction. It can help them with motivation, with life skills, with social skills. It can save them years of wasted time studying for something they like in theory, but don't like in reality. Using work placements as part of the education process is a vital way of bridging the gap between the ‘safe’ theory based academic world and the reality of a workplace environment. If your school’s work experience week has fallen by the wayside, it's time to get it back up and running. The long-term educational benefit far outweighs just another week in the classroom.