Virtual work experience: worth getting out of bed for?

Virtual work experience: worth getting out of bed for?

Woman using laptop on bed

With many work experience opportunities moving online, we look at how virtual work experience can boost digital skills and confidence


Pre-pandemic, advice for school and college leavers, and graduates, was always consistent on one point: whether you planned to look for employment or continue in education, work experience was invaluable. Whether a casual job, an internship, an industry placement programme, an apprenticeship,  they all improved a candidate’s chances and sat high on any CV.


Since Covid-19 struck, nothing about the benefit of work experience has changed. What’s changed in recent months is that its importance has rocketed while its availability, this summer, plummeted.


The employment market is about to get a lot harder for young people, with those leaving education in the next few years most affected. In July, a House of Commons Library briefing showed that from March to June 2020, (official) unemployment doubled, despite furlough and other job retention schemes, while the OBR forecast that the unemployment rate would peak at between 9.7% and 13.2%, compared to a rate of 3.9% in the first quarter of 2020. And it was calculated this week that UK firms have so far announced 100,000 job cuts due to the pandemic.


Meanwhile, April–June 2020 job vacancies were at the lowest level since that set of records began, in 2001.


With fewer jobs and more people looking, finding work is going to be tough for the next few years and especially so for those just coming out of education and having to compete with more experienced contenders. So, anything on a CV that can distinguish a candidate is worth more than ever before, with work experience vital as it could be the one thing that helps to level the playing field with those who’ve already been in employment.


It may therefore be no surprise that “Teachers now think workplace skills have a higher value than academic qualifications in preparing school and college leavers for the post-Covid world of work,” according to, which this week reported on a Teacher Tapp poll of almost 5,000 teachers for The Careers & Enterprise Company. Almost three-quarters of polled teachers said skills such as teamwork and public speaking will equip pupils to secure a good job while only 62% said the same about good academic qualifications.


But in the world of layoffs, furloughs and working from home, how does work experience work? What does it look like? Does it exist?


In June, Bev Jones, chief executive of Career Colleges Trust, wrote that “lockdown has brought many physical placements to a standstill. With more employees working remotely and social distancing measures in place, employers have been understandably less willing and, indeed, less able to take students on.” And at the end of July, a YouGov poll for the Sutton Trust found that 61% of employers had cancelled work experience placements this summer and, looking to the immediate future, just under half (48%) of the 1,000 businesses polled said there are likely to be fewer work experience opportunities in their businesses.


But that last finding can also be read optimistically. It’s understandable that so many placements were cancelled at the height of lockdown, when employers were furloughing staff in large numbers and struggling to set up working-from-home (WFH) systems for the rest. Of course placements had to take a back seat. But as we look to the future, now, isn’t it encouraging that more than half of the businesses expected placements to continue? And a companion YouthSight poll of 900 higher education students, also for the Sutton Trust, found that, despite everything that has been happening, only 18% said that they had had work-experience placements cancelled or postponed.


What’s new is that a rising number of work experience opportunities are moving online.


In higher education, careers services and employers are already collaborating on virtual placements, with some seeing such placements becoming permanently bedded into careers pathways, part of the ‘new normal’. They also see them as presenting positive opportunities, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are otherwise likely to be the worst affected by rising unemployment.


Virtual placements – indeed, any online work experience – are indeed opportunities. As Bev Jones wrote:


The reality is that the nature of ‘work’ was forecast to change well before the virus hit. Digital technology has been having a disruptive effect on every sector of industry for some years … The workforce of the future will need increased digital skills, as technology is already changing and impacting every job role. So rather than viewing the current situation as “lost months” – we should be looking on it as a great opportunity to provide students with the chance to experience the impact of these workplace changes first-hand.


There is much speculation at the moment about the extent to which working from home is becoming permanent. Survey data from an Upwork Future Workforce Report, which polled 1,500 US hiring managers in April, found remote working to be much more successful than anticipated, with benefits including the lack of commute, fewer unnecessary meetings and reduced office distractions, concluding that the “expected growth rate of full-time remote work over the next five years has doubled, from 30% to 65%”.


Working from home is now, itself, a necessary digital skillset, including familiarity with communications and collaboration platforms, from Microsoft Teams and the ubiquitous Zoom to the likes of Slack and Trello, as well as managing hardware and mitigating issues such as poor connectivity, and the softer skills of meeting with and collaborating with remote colleagues. A virtual placement is an opportunity to acquire and demonstrate proficiency in the working from home skillset and to gain experience of working that is just as valid as sitting in an office. And it is an excellent opportunity for those already tech-inclined.


It is also in the nature of a virtual placement that tasks are likely to call on a range of digital proficiencies, already held or to be acquired, with the success of the placement being determined, at least in part, by success at the digital elements of tasks. Again, this mirrors the real working world students will face.


Virtual placements are also democratising. Leaving aside, for a moment, the separate issue of the digital divide, virtual placements have the capacity to create equality of opportunity: increasingly, placements are likely to be gained through platforms that present a candidate on merit, rather than social capital, and, because it’s all virtual, placement providers can be blind to where a candidate lives: again, selection can be on proficiency, not postcode.


Virtual placements are in their infancy. There also won’t be enough to go round, at least in the immediate future. So students are well advised to use the time the anticipated work experience time on skills development, through online courses, many free. In place of work experience, auditing their digital skills and filling the gaps can also provide valuable content for a CV.