By Gabriela De Freitas, Social Researcher in the What Works Department |
For students from less-advantaged backgrounds, the prospect of work experience can be daunting if they lack self-confidence, knowledge or support. The interrelatedness of these factors can ultimately contribute to fewer university students from less-advantaged backgrounds successfully applying for work experience opportunities. This is important when considering the increasingly competitive job market, and students’ prospects once they graduate. Students should be entitled to equal opportunities irrespective of their background. Widening participation initiatives should work with students to address the factors that prevent them from applying to work experience opportunities.
The relevance of work experience opportunities
It is well known that having an undergraduate degree is not enough in today’s job market – students need work experience. Whilst a degree provides students with a foundation of knowledge and skills, employers are now seeking those with experience and the ability to demonstrate essential skills, such as the ability to analyse, solve problems and communicate effectively. The rise of mass higher education (HE) in many countries around the world, including the UK, has resulted in increased competition for graduate jobs[i]. This means students have to work harder and smarter to make themselves more employable and stand out amongst the graduate cohort. Graduate schemes, internships and short-term placements have become common methods to tackle this issue,[ii] yet it could be argued that students from less-advantaged backgrounds struggle to successfully apply to these opportunities due to the similar barriers they face when accessing higher education.
Securing work experience is even more challenging for students from less-advantaged backgrounds as they have more barriers to overcome including socio-economic background, disability, lack of knowledge or connections[iii]. These barriers should not be understood in isolation as they are often interrelated and nuanced. Importantly, on an individual level, students from less-advantaged backgrounds are also likely to experience the additional barrier of low self-confidence[iv]. This perhaps leads them to believe that they are not competent or capable enough to aspire toward their career goals, even if they have good academic performance. As with most things, there is no blanket application of these findings to all students. I acknowledge that students from more advantaged backgrounds face similar challenges. However, a report by Debut (2019) identified that majority of the graduates from less-advantaged backgrounds surveyed were unlikely to apply for jobs because they did not see themselves as potential candidates and were put off from applying in the first place[v]. This is why, in addition to having opportunities for less-advantaged students, it is also important that they have the confidence within themselves to apply in the first place. Students from such backgrounds need opportunities that enable them to expand their skill-set, experiences they would not otherwise have exposure to.
The catch 22: In order to apply for a job you need experience. So how do you develop experience?
To apply for a job or work experience opportunity (e.g. an internship or a placement) students must be able to demonstrate and articulate their merits (i.e. skills and previous experience). However, for those that are just starting out, this would clearly be a challenge, especially if students lack the necessary connections and information to get their ‘foot in the door’. This is likely to be the case for less-advantaged students from a working-class family and/or whether they are the first in their family to go to university[vi].
Fortunately, there has been an intensified attempt to promote social mobility through several widening participation initiatives, that seek to remove or at least ease the barriers to accessing the job market and aiding professional development. King’s College London provides career support through Careers Connect which is a valuable platform that allows all students to: book career-related events, make appointments to receive career guidance and advice, and apply to jobs and internships. Navigating this platform in my first year was exciting but very daunting. Because at that point I had an empty CV, with no real idea of how to submit a successful application. I lacked connections, inside knowledge and awareness about how to ‘get my foot in the door’. I felt unable to demonstrate particular competencies and discuss my skills, experience and interests in a meaningful way. Volunteering as a mentor with a social mobility charity in my first year at university proved to be an important first step to fill these gaps. As it led to a snowball effect, the opening of more doors, giving me the confidence to apply for paid work experience. It is worth mentioning, however, that whilst unpaid opportunities can provide that initial first step, it should not be something that less-advantaged students should limit their sights on. This sends a message to students that their efforts and output are not valuable and ultimately places more barriers for students who cannot afford to work for free[vii].
Starting a snowball effect – the power of saying yes to opportunities
Early into my time at King’s, I encountered various opportunities through: word of mouth, newsletters, including volunteering as a mentor, teaching abroad and applying to career development schemes. A noteworthy example is the King’s Civic Leadership Academy (KCLA), an award-winning development programme for 2nd year students with an interest in societal change. Importantly, it is a social mobility programme meaning that it is particularly for students that come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Whilst on the programme, King’s Civic Scholars (the name given to students accepted into the programme), are exposed to an array of development opportunities. From learning about how to become civic leaders, to learning about community organising. Another important aspect was a paid placement at a charity for 9 months. For many, including myself, this was the first time working in a professional setting. By the end of it, I had accumulated much knowledge about the third sector and developed my skill set, namely: leadership, public speaking and written communication. Not only did this enhance my CV, but it made me feel more confident in my abilities.
Students’ agency – the importance of confidence and making choices.
The role of higher education institutions, organisations and charities has been crucial in providing more work experience opportunities for students. Through social mobility programmes and initiatives, students can hopefully develop confidence in addition to knowledge and skills which over time will make them more employable. In addition to this support, it is students who ultimately choose to apply to the opportunities that are available to them. Students, therefore, have to want to overcome the barriers they face. Even though success is never truly guaranteed, saying yes to apply to opportunities demonstrates a level of confidence that students from less-advantaged backgrounds may lack at times. Saying yes demonstrates a recognition of the barriers they face and a conscious decision to just go for it. The first step is crucial and can lead to a snowball effect of opportunities. In my case, the prospect of applying to certain opportunities (e.g. which required a lengthy list of skills and experience) frightened me, meaning that I often rejected myself before giving an employer the chance to evaluate my merits.
Overall, the choice to say ‘yes’ to an opportunity can have a snowball effect on the subsequent opportunities that come your way. Whether that be through social connections, or by developing knowledge of a particular sector. As a co-founder of the community organising student group King’s For Change, I would not have had the self-confidence to take on this role had it not been for my saying ‘yes’ when I applied to KCLA and the society committee role in my 2nd year at King’s. These experiences made me more confident in my ability to transfer the skills I had developed. Regardless of the barriers I had to overcome, and overall enriched my university experience.
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[i] Welch, P. (2020) Mass higher education in England – a success story? Postdigital Science and Education, 3, 48-64.
[ii] Helyer, R. and Lee, D. (2014). The role of work experience in the future employability of higher education graduates. Higher Education Quarterly, 68(3), 348-372.
[iii] The Sutton Trust. (2020) Social mobility in the workplace: An employer’s guide. [Online] Available from: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Social-Mobility-in-the-Workplace-An-Employers-Guide-Updated-2.pdf.
[iv] Guardian. (2016) State school pupils lack confidence – you won’t fix that in the classroom. [Online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/15/state-school-pupils-confidence-lessons-personality-private-education.
[v] Debut (2019) Working with class: The state of social immobility in graduate recruitment. [Online] Available from: https://employers.debut.careers/report-the-state-of-social-immobility-in-graduate-recruitment/?utm_source=pr.
[vi] Connor, H., Dewson, S., Tyers, C., Eccles, J., Regan, J. and Aston, J. (2001). Social class and higher education: Issues affecting decisions on participation by lower social class groups. [Online] Available from: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/4621/1/RR267.pdf
[vii] The Guardian. (2018) Graduates trapped in unpaid internships, study finds. [Online] https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/nov/23/graduates-trapped-in-unpaid-internships-study-finds.