How do we solve the big work experience challenge?

By Owen Firth on February, 7 2022

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Owen Firth

Owen is the founder and CEO of Readygrad and is a passionate advocate for graduate employability. He and the Readygrad team are focused on changing the lives of graduates through employability training and work experience opportunities. Prior to Readygrad, Owen co-founded and ran Gradability and Performance Education, both dedicated to improving career outcomes of international students. His earlier career included starting a recruitment business, finance roles in IT and PwC. Owen has an MBA from AGSM and is a Chartered Accountant.

The importance and value of relevant work experience to the employability of graduates is almost universally accepted and yet there are still nearly 900,000 HE students missing out…

And whilst there is a lot more activity and effort going into supporting work experience opportunities, there are still nearly 900,000 or two-thirds of higher education students in Australia missing out1.

Why? Is it to do with the number of engagement of businesses in Australia? Is it the level of resourcing required to source and manage work experience opportunities? How can we solve this challenge?


Business volumes and engagement in Australia

Australia’s internship market has lagged that of countries like the US where reportedly 97% of businesses take on at least one intern per year. That said, in the last 5 years particularly, we have seen significant growth in the willingness of employers to provide work experience opportunities.

Coincidentally, we have 900,000 businesses with employees in Australia2. If each could take 1 more intern per year, problem solved. However, around 800,000 of these have under 20 employees2, which is not an area traditionally targeted by industry engagement teams.

Clearly engaging with small businesses is a necessary consideration in scaling up. Small does not necessarily mean a lesser work experience opportunity. We have had great success encouraging and educating thousands of small businesses to take on interns and engage with projects with great results for students. In fact, students often have a broader experience than they do with larger organisations.


Cost of industry engagement

So, in theory, we should have enough businesses in Australia to bridge the gap, assuming engagement of SMEs and alignment between specific degree types and industry. But the cost of engagement is high. Anyone working in the industry engagement area will attest to how long it takes to build a decent pool of appropriate host companies.

We have built thousands of host relationships over many years and would estimate that it costs around $1,000 on average to source a new host company. If an institution wanted to find placements for say 10,000 students per year, we estimate that would require a base of around 5,000 host companies. To source these would take about 50 people over one year and cost in the order of $5m in wages alone.

Despite being a strategic imperative for many, few higher ed institutions, if any, have the budget or the will to invest at this level. Instead, many are opting for a mix of smaller internship programs, projects and low-cost WIL-like options, with the majority relying heavily on students to source placements themselves.


What are the options?

In the absence of millions of dollars of new funding and significantly expanded industry engagement teams, what options are left to find work experience for nearly one million students?

Pre-recorded online experiences are very cost-effective and scalable, but really only provide the student with a taste of a “day in the life of…” with limited skill development and no employer interaction or feedback.

Live group projects are more scalable with one opportunity required for 5 or 6 students over typically two to three weeks. They have the advantage of employer interaction, teamwork development and can be easier to fit into semester or holiday periods. They can sometimes lead to job opportunities but not nearly as often as a WIL placement.

WIL placements are certainly the premium experience in terms of skill development, résumé impact and direct job offers, but as we’ve pointed out, require significant investment to deliver at scale. But what if we were able to properly skill up and support students to find their own placements?


It’s time to empower the students

Our experience historically with self-sourced placements is that students are not properly trained to maximise their likelihood of success. Sourcing a placement is hard for experienced professionals let alone a student without the tools and techniques. In fact, we are often approached by students to source them a placement that is part of their degree.

But we believe that students can be properly trained and provided with practical tools and techniques that will give them the best chance of finding the right placement. This would ideally include a combination of webinars, workshops, online learning and tools & templates.

We have come to the conclusion that this is the best way to significantly scale up opportunities for a much more modest investment. One of the great things about this approach is that it also provides students with the same skills, knowledge and confidence that they need to secure a job down the track. Getting an internship involves a very similar process and techniques to job hunting.

So, whilst there will always be a place for work experience programs sourced and delivered by the university, particularly in more challenging areas, we believe that the best balance between scale, outcomes and realistic investment lies in properly empowering students to source their own placements. Worth considering when setting your employability strategy.

Best regards,

Owen Firth

Chief Employability Officer



1 Over 500,000 students in 2017 (of the 1.4 million in higher education) completed “WIL activities” according to Career Ready Graduates, Universities Australia, 2019

2 ABS 8165.0 Counts of Australian Businesses, including Entries and Exits, June 2017 to June 2021


Internship accelerator training program

NEW Internships Accelerator Training Program

We believe so strongly in the need to empower students that we have decided to distil our many years of experience sourcing and managing placements into a new blended training program. To find out more about this program and how we can tailor it for your students click here. We are offering an introductory discount of 20% until 31 March 2022.

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