The days of the work experience student making tea and photocopying may have gone as employers begin to realise such placements can play a central role in recruiting for entry-level positions.
Competition for work placements is fiercer than ever. According to Connexions, the careers advice firm for 13 to 19-year-olds, media (including PR, advertising and marketing) is the eighth most attractive profession for students, ahead of law and engineering. Combine this saturated market with the fact that agencies and in-house PROs continue to bemoan the lack of decent candidates, and it is clear that a return to a more formalised, 'try before you by' work experience programme could be beneficial to employers and potential employees alike.
Liz Rhodes is the director of the National Council for Work Experience, a government-funded body that offers students and employees advice on getting the most out of work placements.
She says work experience has become central to finding the right person in the current business climate as graduates are forced to reassess traditional approaches to finding entry-level jobs.
'In the past two or three years things have really started to change,' she says. 'Now there is a general recognition in industry that work experience is an effective recruitment tool. Universities understand that and are making sure their students do, too.'
Geronimo, Ketchum, Cohn & Wolfe, August.One Communications and Lexis PR are all aficionados of the work placement. For others, it is an area they wish to develop. Seventy Seven PR, the consumer division of Fishburn Hedges, for instance, recently formalised its work experience programme.
'We used to be reactive to work experience,' says Fishburn Hedges managing director Simon Matthews. 'Now we have a dedicated person who tracks all requests and makes sure we only have one student each week so we can give them our attention. We've also set up induction meetings so students can see all parts of the business.'
And the practice is not just limited to large agencies. Idea Generation, which specialises in arts and entertainment clients, regularly takes on work experience students, as do fashion specialists Talk PR and Sister PR.
The benefit for agencies is that those nominating themselves for work experience are usually self-starters, more interested in PR as a career than those who simply respond to recruitment ads. PROs also benefit from seeing candidates in action and can measure their suitability for a role.
Those impressed by what they see will often make attempts to secure candidates permanently. Matthews adds that wherever possible, high-fliers from FH's work experience intake are channelled into its more formal graduate trainee scheme run each autumn.
'PROs view work experience as a great help in recruiting employees - seeing what the new raw talent is like and if candidates are going to be right for their business,' says Emma Dale, head of PR recruitment specialist Prospect Resourcing. So many agencies approach her to supply work experience candidates that Prospect has its own 'junior division'. It would not charge a client for a two-week placement, but if the student did end up being hired, Prospect could charge a selection fee.
Head of the junior division Firgas Esack says watching a potential employee over a period of time has many advantages over the more traditional recruitment process. 'Just because people don't look good on paper, it doesn't mean they won't perform fantastically in the job,' she adds. Prospect is responding to the changing face of recruitment for lower-level jobs, and has hundreds of potential candidates on its books, recruited from careers fairs and by word of mouth.
Indeed, work experience can be perfect for smaller agencies, which often do not have the time or resources to run graduate programmes or the cash to pay for recruitment ads or headhunters.
Glasgow-based agency Barkers Public Relations is one such agency. Over the past few years it has maintained close relations with Glasgow's universities to offer placements to students on PR courses. The firm is particularly keen to ensure students feel part of the team, involving them in all aspects of the business and mentoring them during their tenure.
Managing director Christina Kelly introduced the scheme to Barkers when she joined a year ago, and says more smaller agencies should follow suit and build relationships with local universities. 'Work experience programmes are something I've always been a fan of,' she adds. 'They have a two-way benefit in that we're getting keen youngsters who aren't jaded like the rest of us. We get to spot the new talent first.'
Nurture young talent
The internet can be a useful tool with which to recruit people for placements.
Agencies such as Brand Nation, Fuse and Grayling have devoted part of their online presence to such activity. 'It allows (students) to see in practice what they are learning in theory. What they often find surprising is the fact that what they are being taught is real and used in the workplace,' explains Kelly.
'The only way PR can truly flourish is if we get young people to come in and see how it really is,' she adds. 'There aren't enough people taking work placements on and giving them real work. You can see that by the scrabble of universities to secure worthwhile placements for their students.'
There are still scare stories of placements gone wrong - one food and drink agency recently got a female work experience student to dress up and sprawl over a car for a promotional event. Rhodes insists businesses must make sure that work experience does not exploit participants and is useful for both parties: 'There can be huge benefits if people put some thought into what they're doing. To get maximum benefits, there needs to be a proper task or project for the work experience person to do.'
Jessica Molloy, PR and marketing manager at the CIPR, agrees: 'Inappropriate jobs that have not been thought through can be a waste of everyone's time.
Both the person on the placement and the company hosting him or her could benefit greatly if the placement is structured properly. Both parties need to be clear at the beginning and set out their objectives.'
But on the all-important question of pay, Rhodes claims too many companies still refuse to pay graduates for their time and that they should be rewarded financially. 'They should be paid. The business case for having work experience people is obvious.
It is a win-win situation.'
MIKE MAURICE, RESONATE
Mike, 25, got a full-time position with Cathy Beck Communications after a two-week placement. After a year there, he moved to Resonate.
He admits he was lucky in that there just happened to be an opening during his placement, but recommends work experience as way of securing a job in the industry.
'I would definitely recommend it to anyone hoping to get into PR,' he says. 'I really don't think I would have walked straight into a job without the experience I gained. I wasn't just doing dogsbody jobs - I was shadowing one of the top people at the firm, and I had the chance to do a whole range of duties during the placement.
'There was just a vacancy open. It was a similar role to the one I was doing in the placement, but the job made me feel more accountable and I listened so much more to what people were telling me.'