Summertime slave labour, can you do us a favour…? How to get the most out of summer internships, placements and work experience

The summer holidays are here at last. Like almost every year, people at school, college or university are approaching our clients and asking for work experience.  On the surface it sounds great, free labour in exchange for experience that will help them land their dream job in the future, but is it always that simple? 


Don’t ignore the downsides. It’s not always legal for the placements to be unpaid. Work experience candidates have some great skills but you will have to spend a lot of time on training and management. With a short placement you may not always get your investment back.


Here are our tips to get the most of out your summer internship, placement and work experience students:


·       Play fair


It’s pretty common for business owners to reserve work experience opportunities for friends and family. It’s best to have a proper process around it so your teams don’t feel there is any nepotism. The process could be as simple asking for CVs to be submitted with a covering letter explaining the experience they are hoping to gain and then inviting people in for an interview. This is good practice for when they start applying for a real job. It will also help you work how you can best use their skills to do some useful work for your business.


·       Paid vs unpaid


It used to be okay to just to offer unpaid placements - unfortunately that is not the case anymore. Whether the placement needs to be paid depends on the type of work the person is doing, not what they are called. To offer the opportunity as an unpaid (or expenses only) position must either be a job shadowing only opportunity, or for a student who is either:

·       Of compulsory school age (up to the age 16)

·       Required to complete a placement as part of a UK based further or higher education course

·       Participating in a government scheme to provide work experience

·       Participating in EU lifelong learning programmes (Leonardo da Vinci, European Community Youth in Action, Erasmus or Comenius)

·       A voluntary worker in a charity or voluntary organisation


If the placement or the student does not meet any of these criteria, you will need to be prepared to pay at least minimum wage.


·       Benefits both ways


Your placement opportunity might be free but don’t underestimate the time investment that you or your team will make in the induction and training of a student. So that the placement benefits everyone, we recommend identifying a project or piece of work the person can work on (or contribute to). Then, at the end of the placement, the student will have something tangible they can include on their CV and talk about in future interviews. Your business will also have been able to tackle something you perhaps haven’t had the resources for. 


As part of the experience, also include the student in some internal and external meetings. Arrange for them to spend time with different parts of your business to build their understanding of different roles. And yes, this can be alongside the long list of office admin tasks you might be thinking they can help with.


·       Fail to plan…


Students often have no work experience and that’s why they want a placement with you.  Don’t underestimate it. They may not know about things you consider pretty basic, like what they should wear to work, what time they should come in/take lunch/leave for the day etc – prepare a plan in advance. In education, students will work to a pre-defined schedule and have to ask permission if they want to deviate from that - if that’s not how your business works you should explain that to them on day one. 


In terms of the work you want them to complete, you will need to explain the context of why it needs to be done and all of the steps to completing it in detail.  Be prepared for lots of questions. They also may be nervous about asking more questions so build in lots of opportunities to check in. It’s also a good idea to assign a “go-to” person who will check their work, provide regular feedback and provide support and encouragement on their projects.



·       One week, two weeks, 1 month or more?


The ideal length of a placement depends on what it is for. Generally our advice is placements of less than two weeks should be avoided unless they are purely for job shadowing. If you think about it logically, by the time you have trained the student, they have spent time with your team, attended some external meetings etc, the placement could be wrapping up before they have had time to contribute anything!


To determine the length of your placement assess how long the project you want them to complete will take (factor in that they may not have any experience) and how much training they will need. Also think about the time allocated to job shadowing, attending meetings, completing other admin tasks.  Be careful that the placement is not so long that it starts to feel like a job that should be paid.



If you are offering work placements in your business and are unsure whether they should be paid, get in touch for a free consultation, call: 0333 043 3239, email: or visit our website:


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We’re more than your typical HR Consultants.  We work with SMEs to provide forward thinking and results orientated HR services across London.


Working with like-minded businesses, we help you to attract and retain the best people.  Our goal is to work with in partnership with you, to create a great place to work whilst


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Sarah RopekComment