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Small and Medium-sized Enterprises: Student Work Placements

Volume 792: debated on Monday 16 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage employers, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, to offer high-quality work experience placements to all students aged 16 to 18.

My Lords, work experience is a key component of 16 to 19 year-old study programmes, including schemes such as traineeships which are focused on supporting students’ transition into work. The new T-levels, beginning in 2020, will include industry placements, to ensure that students spend sufficient time in the workplace to develop their technical skills and prepare for skilled employment. We are committed to supporting employers who offer these high-quality placements.

My Lords, educators and employers agree that high-quality work experience is one of the most effective ways to help students find jobs. Many smaller employers are willing and able to offer placements, especially to 16 to 18 year-olds, who they believe benefit most. What can the Minister and his department do to increase the availability and take-up of such placements, for example by encouraging and enabling schools and colleges to spread work experience throughout term times, rather than cramming it into a short period at the end of the school year? What impact does he expect the new T-levels to have on the availability of work experience, particularly for non T-level students?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that these work placements are extremely important, and that there is not a one-size-fits-all placement. We have just completed an initial industry placement pilot with 21 providers, and 20,000 placements will take place over the next year as part of the capacity and delivery plan. We will evaluate how these placements have gone and make recommendations drawn from these experiences. This will include whether they have been most successful delivered in a single block, on day release, or by any other pattern. We are also looking at how we can help SMEs more by producing guidance on how they can best take advantage of this facility.

My Lords, work experience works when it is done well. Although, as the Minister said, the Government publish some guidelines for the 16 to 19 year-old work-study programme, SMEs can struggle in the short term as well as in these longer-term programmes if they are not properly prepared and helped. Who is responsible for ensuring that all work placements reach a good standard, so that it is not just a question of checking workplace safety beforehand but of ensuring that they deliver for the benefit of the student and of the company?

My Lords, we are in the process of issuing a package of guidance for businesses, particularly aimed at SMEs; there are 10 areas of guidance in this first batch, including on how to implement industry placements, engaging students and parents or guardians, engaging staff, and the business case for industry placements. We have to accept that this will be an iterative journey as we embark on it at such scale, but we are committed to ensuring that these placements are of high quality.

My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate that it is much more difficult for a small business to have someone in to learn exactly what it is all about than it is for huge concerns, which can take people without affecting staff numbers? I am pleased to say that as a dentist, we had a number of people come to see what it was like, and I am delighted now to go to a dentist who went into dentistry because of her visit to our surgery.

My Lords, as someone who has run SMEs for nearly 40 years I can speak with some commitment to that important part of our economy. My noble friend is right that it can be more difficult for a small business to accommodate these sorts of placements. However, they can also be much more flexible and give a young person much more exposure to every aspect of that business. As I mentioned, we are providing the resources and guidance to employers, and this whole programme will develop over the next couple of years.

My Lords, approximately 800,000 young people who are eligible to take T-levels are coming through the system, and it seems that the pilot schemes are operating in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands, as might be required. That aside, the cost of this will be significant; we are talking about a three-month placement period, not a matter of a few days. How will the Government fund this?

My Lords, we have already announced substantial funding for the T-level programme, and there are a number of key components of it, such as the technical knowledge and practical skills that are specific to a chosen industry or occupation, and an industry placement of at least 45 days in students’ chosen industry or occupation. In March of this year the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a specific amount—I think it was £80 million—to assist SMEs in making these placements available.

My Lords, does the definition of SMEs include small farms, so that students can get experience in farming and animal husbandry? We have a shortage of agricultural workers coming through and we know that very few young people who are not brought up in farming go on to enter agriculture at the moment, so there is a workforce need to give them high-quality experience. Would such support also cover indemnity for these farmers?

My Lords, I certainly hope farmers are included, because that is how I started. At 13, I was put on by my father at 20p an hour and laid off without pay when it rained. One of the parts of the guidance we are preparing is on specific health and safety advice for industries where there is more exposure to heavy machinery, such as construction and, of course, agriculture. I therefore hope very much that young people will be involved in that.

My Lords, the last question was not just about advice but possible indemnity—insurance if there is any accident. What is the position in respect of that?

My Lords, most SMEs have what is called a combined business insurance policy, which includes such things as indemnity limits for public liability. I am therefore comfortable that that would be covered, but that of course would be up to the employer to check.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the college that has been set up with the co-operation of Stansted Airport and Essex County Council, which provides on-the-spot opportunities in technical training for people in the locality. Should we not hope to see that example followed in many other places?

My Lords, I am not aware of that excellent opportunity but I hope that it will provide inspiration to other employers.