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How SE communities in the UK should get ready for valuable work placements in their businesses for young people

Articulating what social entrepreneurship represents and the benefits it can deliver for communities is seen as a critical first stage in attracting and preparing young people as work experience participants in this exciting sector.

The SIVSEN research context

The SIVSEN Comparative Analysis explores the transition from education (e.g., vocational college, universities) into a social enterprise workplace, including international programmes in the UK, Sweden, Italy, and Romania. During the spring and summer of 2021, the SIVSEN partners conducted research on the social enterprise sector and their interaction with the education system and work placement programmes run for learners by FE and higher education institutions, with a particular focus on work placement programmes in social enterprises. 

Initial research was undertaken to research the available data, reports, and studies on this with  four reports prepared to set out each of the national contexts, then one comparative analysis for the UK, Sweden, Italy, and Romania summarised key points of similarity that would form the basis for the work experience framework. It was important to explore the relationship between the social enterprise sector and the FE/Higher Education organisations in more depth and to do this we held a series of focus groups. Participants were recruited from City College Plymouth and the social enterprise network. There were five from City College Plymouth and four social entrepreneurs. Two of the City College participants had previously worked in the social enterprise sector which  brought valuable dual perspective to the proceedings.

Key learnings from the UK

Current challenges of providing work placements in social enterprises

In the United Kingdom, there is no standard (governed by law/regulations) or social sector specific work experience framework/programme,  instead many organisations have developed their own framework.

Everyone agreed that work experience needs to be well planned and adequately structured and resourced. Staff capacity and resourcing issues were identified as key challenges by both employers and colleges. The introduction of T levels with dedicated curriculum time, and a £1000 payment to employers for each work placement student they host will go some way to addressing this. Students’ awareness of the range of opportunities available to them was a further challenge, and it was thought that younger and less privileged students may not have had an opportunity to develop the individual sense of purpose that would make employment experience in a social enterprise appealing. It was noted that such opportunities are sometimes competing with paid work in the commercial retail or catering sectors which are likely to be much more familiar to the student.  Participants felt that social enterprises need to sell their offers to students better. These barriers are linked with more general concerns expressed about social mobility and ensuring that students from poorer backgrounds have equal access to high-quality work placements. 

Finally, Covid, working from home, and the shift to digital presents barriers for some employers who need to manage virtual work experience differently to in-person, and for young people who do not have access to the digital and physical resources to participate. There is also the need for employers to shout about what they do as young people don’t necessarily know what a social enterprise is.

Work placements expectations and benefits for young people

This focus group provided an opportunity for FE professionals and social entrepreneurs to come together, identify some shared goals and begin to build ways of working together to meet these. 

Shared goals included:

  • addressing inequality and enabling social mobility
  • creating socially beneficial job opportunities for young people and a diverse, innovative workforce for the social sector
  • providing meaningful, supportive, and inspiring work placement / apprenticeship opportunities
  • broadening the range of work placement opportunities available to young people in VET
  • ensuring that employers are resourced to provide high-quality work placement opportunities 

From the social entrepreneur’s perspective, offering work experience is a valued activity which makes good business sense and contributes to their social objectives. It is good PR, helps to raise their profile as a business, brings in diverse and innovative perspectives and contributes to developing the skills, values and motivation needed in their future workforce. 

From the educational institution perspective, social enterprises represent an untapped source of work placement providers who are likely to provide supportive, high-quality experiences for their learners. Plymouth is recognised as a social enterprise city, with many potential social enterprise employers, and social enterprise work placements are perceived as providing an additional “humanistic” dimension to the work experience.

Finally, social entrepreneurs expect young people to be motivated and determined to learn. They believed that the work placements they provide could be beneficial for young people’s future careers and wellbeing. These could practice and develop skills and knowledge related to a career in the social economy sector. They can explore and connect to a specific employer and see if this could be their future employer before applying for a job. And finally, they will get a real connection with and an in-depth understanding of the labour market, specifically the social economy sector.

Read the full SIVSEN Comparative Analysis  here.

Learn more about the UK’s national context of the work placements in the social economy sector here.