February 16, 2015

Inspiring our future

Work experience programs can often do little to stimulate and prepare Australian students for the workforce. But Work Inspiration aims to change that by ensuring a young person’s first contact with the working world is meaningful and inspiring. See how businesses are getting involved.

Two generations ago about a quarter of Australian teenagers stayed at school to complete year 12. The remainder left in year 10 to join the workforce. Today, those numbers are reversed. Yet many teenagers are still just as anxious to get out of the classroom.

However, two additional years of study does little to acquaint them with the world of work or to give them insight into where they should be heading in life. So, alongside their studies at school, there’s an opportunity to provide young people with meaningful experiences in the workplace.

But to do so poses a number of challenges. Traditionally, students have to arrange their own week-long work experience placements, where finding something suitable can be difficult – especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. And if they do succeed, their experiences are likely to be limited to generic tasks such as filing and photocopying.

Work Inspiration, an initiative of the Foundation for Young Australians, the Smith Family and NAB, aims to improve Australia’s work experience programs by ensuring a young person’s first contact with the working world is meaningful and inspiring.

Essentially an employer-led program, Work Inspiration provides free support and resources to Australian workplaces that want to reinvent their work experience program for young people. And while it was originally developed in the UK, as a major employer, NAB was keen to become the corporate champion of the local program.

Navigating the job market

“We know young people can find navigating the job market tough, but thinking about their careers early on will help them pursue the right opportunities for their future success,” says Paula Benson, NAB’s General Manager, Corporate Responsibility. “We want their first experience of the workplace to be positive and inspiring rather than simply about photocopying or making coffees.”

Supported by the Department of Education through the Making Career Connections initiative, Work Inspiration has seen a variety of organisations and industries in every state pledge spaces for more than 2,500 students since its inception in 2013. NAB has run 16 Work Inspiration programs across Australia, with a further three planned for the last quarter of 2014. So far, 35 schools and 220 young people have participated, with early anecdotal reports of the program’s benefits pointing to very positive outcomes, notes Benson.

For The Smith Family’s Cindy Baker, National Project Manager of Work Inspiration, one of the major achievements of the program lies in its ability to provide more work experience placements for students. “In disadvantaged schools where students are looking for week-long work experience placements, typically as many as half, sometimes even more, are left behind at school for the duration, unable to have secured work experience,” explains Baker.

Disadvantaged young people often don’t have the necessary employer networks to secure a work experience placement and the impact on business dedicating one worker to one student is costly. With roughly 30 students attending a Work Inspiration program with an employer, many more students can access work experience as a result and the time spent engaging with students is shared amongst the employees. But the gains go even further.

According to Neil Bone, Managing Director of Wastech Engineering, a medium-sized manufacturing business for the waste and recycling industry that participated in Work Inspiration last year, the program allowed students to gain a real understanding of his business’s workings. A range of presentations from various staff members and follow-up activities, including a small welding project, was a far cry from the usual menial tasks assigned to a work experience student.

“You could give them an idea of the many roles involved in a business and how everyone was equally important to the outcome – whether they’re a receptionist, accountant, bookkeeper, salesperson, engineer or purchaser.”

At the same time, Bone appreciated how condensed the format was: “It meant you weren’t scratching your head, wondering what job to give the student next.” He was agreeably surprised by how his staff took to the program, too. “Asking our staff to stand up and do a half-hour presentation was daunting but ultimately enlightening for them. They loved the experience and found the students so eager to learn.”

Lessons for all

Baker says this reaction is typical, with the benefits extending well beyond the students to the employers and their staff. For businesses, it’s provided an opportunity to engage with the workforce of tomorrow, making it a great recruitment portal. “One business saw it as a retention tool for its own staff,” explains Baker. “The staff enjoyed the social responsibility aspect and being able to participate in that space. They felt a lot more engaged in the business.”

For businesses in rural and regional communities, Work Inspiration offers a cluster model where various businesses can get together to run the one program. As Baker observes: “It improves the solidarity of businesses in that community. It also helps to retain youth. They go through their education not realising what’s in their own backyard.”

NAB Business Banker Paul Wood is similarly upbeat about the program. He grabbed the chance to connect with the youth in his local community of Dandenong, Victoria, where both he and his staff found the response of the students highly rewarding.

“Dandenong is the most multicultural community in Australia, with 120-plus nationalities,” explains Wood. “Some of these kids are refugees from countries like Afghanistan. They were so motivated to become something in their new country. It was pretty amazing.”

For Wood, mentoring youth was the most gratifying part of the program. “You feel satisfied you’re helping someone. It was about trying to uncover what a person was interested in, to help kids identify roles that would suit them.”

The benefits were most evident in the response of a student who, prior to participating in Work Inspiration, was determined to drop out of school. “After experiencing the program and getting a sense of the variety of career opportunities available to her, she has now decided to stay in school and her teachers have told us that her school attendance has vastly improved,” says Benson. “That’s the sort of impact we want to have.”

Looking ahead

Of course the implementation of Work Inspiration was not without its challenges. “We worked hard at the beginning to help our Business Bankers understand what Work Inspiration was and how it benefited their customers,” says Benson. “However, once on board, they’ve proven to be our biggest converts, with many now acting as ambassadors both internally and in their communities.”

Benson adds that, while NAB will continue to run the program next year, they’ll focus more on areas where there’s high youth unemployment to make even more of a difference. There are other issues to address as well. “We know from the schools involved in the program so far that there’s a real need to address the financial literacy of teens,” says Benson. “Helping kids increase their financial confidence is a large part of this program, and we’ll be looking at ways to apply this to Work Inspiration.”

The lowdown

Work Inspiration helps businesses establish work experience programs to inspire young people to think differently about the world of work by guiding them through the process of developing a program that suits their organisation.

Businesses that make a pledge receive everything needed to run an effective program free of charge, including:

  • a step-by-step guide on how to run Work Inspiration
  • a range of resources
  • professional support.

To find out more visit workinspiration.com.au or email corporate.responsibility@nab.com.au

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Summer 2014). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our app, NAB Think.

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