Work placement skills at the ready? Or not yet?

Work placements are undoubtedly extremely valuable activities, as no amount of learning can beat learning by doing. Undertaking a work placement can eventually help a young person obtain a better job and higher pay because it shows future employers that they are pro-active and willing to make an effort to become experienced. Every rung on the experience ladder takes an individual nearer to career opportunities. Work placements, however short, can also build confidence and a network of contacts, giving individuals a more realistic set of perceptions of what their chosen career will be like and where their niche in it may be. Most of all it helps develop self-efficacy – the knowledge that you are good at something. On the other hand, a placement can also show someone that their dream job isn’t for them after all; which sad as it may seem, is actually good news. The sooner this fact is discovered the better because you can then move on to career plan B.

Many young people don’t have the foresight or time to think about ‘getting ready’ or honing skills for work. Unaware of the kinds of things they will need to do in most jobs, they just look forward to magically having their own money and the ‘freedom’ that brings. These honest insights are care of various young people known to me. Educational research also shows that many young people are not prepared for work experience. For example, nearly all employers when surveyed, state that punctuality is the most important ‘skill’ required  – but does a young person know why? Making calls or answering the phone in the workplace is also something that terrifies many young people and isn’t something they expect to do. If a teen doesn’t appreciate what will be expected of them, how can they rehearse and prepare? The youngsters I spoke to suggested that getting into early routines of overt work skills would help them expand their perceptions.

Add to this lack of preparation the current issues of global lockdowns and it makes you wonder how young people and those who wish to start a late career, can ever get prepared. For young people learning the basic requirements of employment can be quite hard. Formal and informal courses abound about subject specific skills or the knowledge and techniques needed for particular jobs. Yet, whether someone has their heart set on a creative problem-solving career in design, art, photography or engineering or other kinds of jobs such as farming, firefighting or modelling, there are overarching skills of what we might call ‘professionalism’, as well as basic workplace etiquette and functioning, that might never have been addressed during education. There’s so much to learn no wonder young people prefer to go off and have fun.

Several years ago, I set up a work experience project in my capacity as a university programme leader, in which my graphic design students each get paired with a local charity. They undertake these freelancing placements for about six months across the year. Quite often the students were unprepared for the responsibility they were expected to take on even in this relatively informal workplace. They thought that their new clients would be like tutors and didn’t realise that they had to be more like the tutor in this new relationship. Getting the students’ expectations ready for their roles – often the first time they have worked in a real setting, has therefore formed quite a large part of my research.

But do employment skills need to wait until someone is in university? Starting to prepare for work placement by developing employability skills and expectations early is probably a good idea. Yet, it is hard to mix these skills in amongst the overload of regular learning and possibly homework. Even if the necessary skills get talked about how can they be actually rehearsed?


At the Graphic Design Project, we’ve put together Skills Showcase, a course in digital book format, to help teens (from about 14 years and up) and other inexperienced young people become prepared for work placement and then for work. By recognising what they can already do and not yet do, a young person can begin to re-see their expectations of the world of employed or freelance work and understand what they can start adding to their resumé.  Skills Showcase walks young people through a series of fun, yet challenging, tasks from the safe space of home. While out-in-the-world activities are included, each one also has its at-home or online equivalent, so it can be undertaken during a period of chosen or enforced home educating, or as a top up to formal education. The projects are flexible and can involve a young person’s interests and be related to what they find meaningful. Topics covered include, amongst others, finding a work placement, evaluating one’s own skills, project management and  communicating (including the dreaded business phone call!). As well as being suitable for those considering work in the creative industries, Skills Showcase is also suitable for any other kind of work. Skills Showcase also demonstrates how to put an actual showcase of skills together as the start of a project-based portfolio.


Finally, it is worth adding that Skills Showcase also takes a simple look at the ethics and sustainability of the workplace. Some of you, dear readers, may well wish to develop or even change the way we work in the twenty-first century. Young people ought not just be offered out to industry as more noses to put to the grindstone. Indeed, one thing many youngsters do know is that we can’t go on in the same way forever.  Meanwhile, employers often tell me that they look forward to hiring creative young people who can advise and inspire them about new ideas and ways to be kinder the planet. Skills Showcase aims to build confidence as well as specific skills, helping youngsters to handle set-backs and to learn from mindful reflection.

Though Skills Showcase can be dipped into, it also contains activities that may take a long time to undertake. A duration of a school year or term, or even across a long vacation would be recommended. Many of the activities can double up with other educational tasks or family events. We also advise that each young person who undertakes the course has a trusted adult mentor who can support them. Some activities are very simple and easy, while others are much more demanding and challenging, and so a mentor can help the individual gauge their readiness for each challenge.

For more information please email

Skills Showcase can be found here on our website

Image credits:

Graffiti from Limerick City by William Murphy on Flikr Creative Commons

Girl with tongue out by Paliativo on Flikr Creative Commons

Teens at GEMMA workshop by Becky Stern on Flikr Creative Commons

Girl with light at GEMMA workshop by Becky Stern on Flikr Creative Commons

Boy with drone by Steve Halama on Unsplash

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