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Leicester College students taking part in a work experience placement with Stepnell

Making work experience work in construction

As business and school leaders call for work experience to be reinstated, how can construction firms make the most of placements?

Posted by Stephanie Broad | October 19, 2015 | People, policy, politics, money

The importance of giving construction students access to hands-on experience on site, helping them get job-ready by developing their skills in a real-life working environment, is universally accepted.

So why do some companies still shy away from offering work placements – and where work placements are offered, how can you make sure that both employer and students get the most out of them?

Andrew Barlow, work experience coordinator for Leicester College, would like to see a step change in the number of construction employers willing to offer work experience placements. He points out that work experience is a great way for firms to encourage more young people into construction, raise their own company profile, and recruit new employees. Furthermore, some placements give the employer the chance to carry out what’s effectively an ‘extended interview’ before making a job or apprenticeship offer.

The further education college – which has this year undertaken a major programme of work placements with construction firm Stepnell – has brought in a number of measures to encourage more employers to get involved with its work experience programme, including greater support for employers before, during and after the work experience placements.

Careful planning and preparation and the management of expectations on both sides has also been a key part of the programme which has seen Stepnell providing up to 50 week-long placements for Leicester College construction students this year. Students worked on a new-build project by Stepnell to create a new Motor Vehicle Workshop at the College, as well as a scheme at the city’s De Montfort University creating a new conference venue.

The right fit

Ensuring a good match between the student and work placement is always essential for work experience to work out, says Andrew Barlow: “There has to be a direct correlation between on- and off-the-job training so that the work experience complements the student’s current programme of study. The student must fully understand their role in meeting employer expectations in areas such as health and safety and time-keeping, while the employer must also be clear about their responsibility in providing opportunities for the learner to develop their skills in the workplace.”

As well as being carefully selected, Stepnell gives students a briefing on the rules and requirements on site in advance and also receive a full induction from the site team. A member of the site team is appointed to be their mentor once the placement begins.

Stepnell’s best practice manager Karen Ryan says a major benefit of the Leicester College programme has been the protocols which have been developed to coordinate the essential paperwork, including the students’ personal details, risk assessments and the necessary insurance cover. The perceived administrative burden can be a major disincentive for construction firms to engage with work experience, she points out, along with the time needed to manage students on site.

Stepnell has developed a work experience pack for each student which compiles all the necessary risk assessments, health and safety and trade-related questionnaires which must be completed by the student as well as providing a record for the student’s time on site where their experience is logged and feedback is given on their performance. An administrator works with the student and site team to ensure that all the paperwork is completed. The administrator also liaises directly with the College to ensure that any problems that might arise, such as non-attendance, are quickly identified and resolved.

Stepnell is now working with Leicester College to look at other ways of further promoting placements to other construction firms. The company has a strong record of delivering work placements for both school and college students as part of its commitment to encouraging more young people into construction. It previously led the Minster College training initiative in Herefordshire which saw 1,500 students from local schools and colleges gaining experience of a live construction site.

The company has historically recruited new staff members through placements - and is likely to make job offers to some of the Leicester College students - but building its own workforce isn’t the main motive, stresses Karen Ryan: “For us, it’s more about getting the message out and raising awareness. It’s perhaps never been more important to let the next generation know more about our industry and the opportunity it offers for a well-paid, technically challenging and rewarding career.”

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