Students from disadvantaged backgrounds
benefit the most from work experience placements, but are least able to access them. 

A hidden weakness in Australia’s new career development strategy is that low socio-economic status (SES) students have limited access to work experience while at secondary school. Currently, socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of the post-compulsory school destinations undertaken by young Australians.[1] Students’ participation in work experience forms part of a broader policy framework that aims improve social mobility and autonomy by providing equal and highly effective career guidance to young people. However, recent research leads to the conclusion that while low SES students draw the most value from work experience placements, in practice, they are least able to access them.

Work experience is relied on as an essential step to enabling students to successfully engage in post-compulsory education and the labour market. The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in Victoria views access to short term industry placements for Year 10 students through its work experience scheme as an important tool to broaden students’ experience and understanding of career opportunities before they make decisions about future pathways.[2] However there are structural weaknesses and problematic assumptions that limit the capacity of students to find a valuable placement.[3] The Australian Government’s National Career Development Strategy recognised that our responsibility to ‘improving young people’s exposure to the world of work’ needs to be discharged in a way that ensures high quality and equitable access.[4]

Data on the number or types of work experience placements in Australia are not available. However other data sources and stakeholder consultation reveal low SES Students, who benefit the most from the expanded access and breath of experience provided by work experience (see below), generally have the poorest access to these opportunities. Urbis’ examination of student surveys led to the conclusion that students who fell into one or more of the categories of remote location, low SES and ATSI were the most limited in the types of careers they could access through work experience or talking to individuals in those roles.[5] This limited access is attributed to geographical isolation and the lack of ‘social capital’.[6] such as a family’s social connections with individuals in desired career fields. Students have particularly limited social connections to individuals working in highly skilled or professional contexts.[7]

These factors are compounded, rather than addressed by careers programs which provide highly variable and ‘fragmented’ information and opportunities to students, particularly in low SES schools.[8] Of particular concern is that students, careers staff and teachers view the responsibility of finding a work experience placement rests largely with the student.[9] There is also a shortage of advertised placements. During consultation with states and territories, the Nous Group heard that ‘there is limited opportunity to increase work experience placements [because] focus on gaining access to workplaces has shifted to structured workplace learning for VET in School courses’.[10] Without transparent and accessible registers of potential placements, students’ ability to access work experience rests largely on their existing social capital. For example, careers practitioners encourage students to ask friends and extended family and cold-calling business they have heard of or find online.[11] Some large and small businesses will take on a work experience student only if they are introduced or recommended by an existing employee or client.

Low SES students’ limited access to work experience reduces access to highly relevant pathways knowledge, but also has broader flow on effects on their engagement and aspirations. Students find the knowledge gained from a work experience placement is very useful in allowing them to make an informed choice about subject selection, post-compulsory education and potential careers. Urbis surveyed young people, career practitioners and teachers found that all agreed that work experience/work placement is either the most useful or the second most useful form of career development. However, students are much less likely to have access to work experience or a work visit than other, less useful careers activities such as speaking with a careers counsellor. Figure 1, extracted from the Urbis report, highlights this disparity.

Figure 1:  Incidence and perceived usefulness of careers information or guidance aimed at young people at secondary school (Urbis, 2011).

Figure 1 demonstrates the variability in students’ access to information and activities that will inform their pathway decisions. Moreover, the results of Urbis’ survey suggest that schools, particularly careers practitioners, could be more effective if they allocated their time and resources to assisting students experience a workplace.[12] Low SES students are particularly short-changed because their aspirations around career and higher education are more greatly influenced by experiences, either directly or from their friends and family.[13] Furthermore, the positive impressions students gain from their peers’ and family’s experiences make them more likely to access and engage with formal resources on higher education and careers.[14] Students from low SES schools are less likely to aspire to higher to education and professional careers.[15] These students therefore benefit the most from improved access to work experience in schools.

If you're an organisation, we'd love to chat with you about offering a work experience opportunity to one of our students from Mill Park Secondary College in Melbourne's north, or Wanganui Park Secondary College in Shepparton.. You can call Cameron on 0400 545 196 or email


[1] Johnston, David W., Lee, Wang-Sheng, Shah, Chandra, Shields, Michael A. and Spinks, Jean. (2014). Are neighbourhood characteristics important in predicting the post-school destinations of young Australians? National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Adelaide.

[2] Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (Victoria) (DEECD). (2014). Work Experience Manual: For Victorian secondary schools. Retrieved from

[3] The Age, ‘Career decisions made one week at a time’, from

[4] Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (Australia) (DEEWR). (2013). National Career Development Strategy. Canberra: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations,

[5] Urbis. (2011). National Career Development Strategy (NCDS) Research Project Element 2: Synthesis Report. Retrieved from

[6] Miles Morgan. (2012). The National Career Development Strategy Research Project Element 1: Final Report. Retrieved from

[7] Todhunter, J. (2009). The Effect of Permanent Income on Completed Schooling in Australia. Paper presented at the HILDA Survey Research Conference, Melbourne 2009.

[8] Foundation for Young Australians. (2012), Submission by the Foundation for Young Australians to the National Career Development Strategy Green Paper. Retrieved from

[9] Urbis. (2011). National Career Development Strategy (NCDS) Research Project Element 2: Synthesis Report. Retrieved from

[10] Nous Group (2011). Rationale and options for a National Career Development Strategy. Retrieved from

[11] Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (Victoria) (DEECD). (2014). Work Experience Manual: For Victorian secondary schools. Retrieved from

[12] See for example the recommendation by Miles Morgan of a segmented approach such as in Scotland where face-to-face interviews and individual career counseling are provided only to people who are deemed to have low career readiness c.f. partial and unequal implementation of a traditional face-to-face format in Australia (2011).

[13] Archer, L., & Yamashita, H. (2003). ‘Knowing their limits?’ Identities, inequalities and inner city school leavers’ post-16 aspirations’. Journal of Education Policy, 18(1), 53–69.

[14] Smith, L. (2011). Experiential 'hot' knowledge and its influence on low-SES students' capacities to aspire to higher education. Critical Studies In Education, 52(2), 165-177.

[15] Sikora, J., & Saha, L. J (2011). Lost Talent? The Occupational Ambitions and Attainments of Young Australians. Retrieved from