Work experience fails students whose parents lack connections

Sonia Loudon THE AUSTRALIAN JULY 18, 2015

“Sorry, we don't offer a work experience program”. This line became a familiar one for Christian, a promising maths student from a disadvantaged part of Melbourne, as he approached accounting firms about Year 10 work experience.

The line was only half true. We know that many businesses do offer work experience, but only to students who they already known through employees or clients.

A hidden weakness in Australia’s career development is that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often can't access work experience placements, especially in professional environments. It doesn't sit well with our assumptions about social mobility that this important opportunity is out of reach for many deserving students.

Only about 46% of students can access work experience during secondary school, according to research by consulting firm Urbis. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the least likely to gain access to it. Finding work experience depends heavily on parental connections and the efforts of school careers advisors.

In Christian’s case, his parents did not know anyone who works in accounting. Although Christian was a top student in his advanced maths class, his school could only offer him placements with retailers and childcare centres near his home in South Morang.


Yet all the evidence shows that access to work experience is one of the best drivers of students’ academic outcomes, career aspirations and self-confidence.

Work experience is especially influential for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Other students have high aspirations continually reinforced by family, friends and at school. Disadvantaged students often do not.

Fortunately, some proactive businesses have recognised that offering work experience is an important part of their commitment to equal opportunity.

Christian has spent the past week at the Melbourne offices of global professional services firm PwC. The firm was approached by Boundless Foundation, a not-for-profit that matches students from disadvantaged outer-suburbs and regional schools with professional workplaces. “Christian’s energy and curiosity have made him a great part of our team”, says PwC Partner Jason Slade. “We’ve seen his confidence grow throughout the week”.

Boundless works closely with schools to identify talented and hardworking students who deserve an opportunity like work experience to realise their potential. It then vouches for these students to workplaces.

Drawing on a network of enthusiastic young teachers associated with the Teach For Australia program, Boundless is also encouraging workplaces to make work experience simpler and more engaging by applying a student-led approach that works successfully in the classroom.

For Christian, the opportunity at PwC has been valuable: “I’ve got to work on some real life situations. It’s opened my eyes to how a business works – you’re accountable to other people, but you have to be responsible for yourself, for getting things right”.

He says he has learnt how to comfortable in a professional environment and to be proactive in asking questions. Christian is more certain than ever that university is the right option for his future.

Christian’s story shows we can make progress once we abandon the myth that all students can find good work experience through family connections or by using the phonebook.

Sonia is co-founder of Boundless Foundation and a secondary school teacher in Melbourne.