True gripes: Work experience

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The Independent Online
It's a simple enough concept. "Work Experience." To experience work. To give students a chance to undertake real responsibility in a workplace. To let them find out whether they really want to be an architect, pharmacist, barrister etc, by trying it out. To give them skills which will help them if they do choose to pursue their ambitions.

In today's difficult job market, more students, including myself, are doing work experience to impress future employers and avoid the dole queue.

What is it, then, about these two words that gives employers the idea they have an office skivvy for two weeks (or, for the lucky ones, one week)? Earlier this summer I did some work experience with my local council. My first task was to modify changes to the committee structure on computer. A reasonable task to start off with. Next, however, I was told to change the labels on some files. These filled one-and-a-half shelves. The day dragged on with equally enthralling tasks - stuffing envelopes, visits to the mailroom and photocopying.

Yet what happened to me doesn't come close to the horror stories my friends tell. One was told to sort, alphabetically, some photographs. Fine, she thought. Until she saw them - not a few, but thousands.

Two other friends did their work experience together in a barrister's office. Anticipating an eventful two weeks, packed with exciting murder cases, they were disappointed to find themselves twiddling their thumbs. Why offer work experience placements if you have no time for them?

For me, the last straw was when, after three days of braving other terrors of administration work, I was told to update yet more files on computer. I could take no more. I spoke to my "employer". My assertiveness changed things considerably, and, despite the trauma of the first three days, I was actually sad to leave at the end of the two weeks. But some employers seem intent on giving work experience students the work they themselves can quite easily do, and would have to do anyway every other week of the year.

It seems that work experience is destined to become another meaningless item written on CVs by eager applicants, but ignored by employers, who know that work experience means nothing more than work skivvy.