The youngsters almost stole the shows! The young people who have so far opened the Fair Train Expert Sessions conferences in Manchester and Heathrow, in the “My Story” slot, have been terrific – and set the bar very high for everyone else.

Jack Riley, who not only won Scientific/Technical Apprentice of the Year at the 2017 UK Nuclear Skills Awards, but then went on to be recognised as the overall Nuclear Apprentice of The Year, launched our Work Experience Month in Manchester, on October 16th, in our first conference.

Having completed his apprenticeship and now having landed a full-time job at Sellafield, Jack charmed the packed room with his story of focused dedication and even more amazing determination: he really struggled with chemistry, capability and achievement in which was a key requirement for his progress. This was very much a story of “burning the midnight oil” and refusing to give up.

Matthew Lynch and Ella Davies tackled that slot with enviable aplomb in our second conference at Heathrow, when they took us through their journey of work experience with British Airways. They clearly had had an extraordinary week, which even included going gliding.

But most important of all was that Jack, Matthew and Ella epitomised just what a huge difference work experience, in any form, can make to a young person’s preparation for working life ahead, through their increased and enriched employability, not to mention their confidence: Matthew’s and Ella’s public speaking skills were first class.

What has been especially pleasing is that we’ve seen really clearly just how much excellent work experience activity is happening all round the country. Much remains to be done, of course.

“Delivering The Experience” is a session in our conferences which tackles the sometimes awkward relationship between employers and learning/training providers. Our forum, however, focuses on the positives, i.e. those organisations doing it really well and how each party can learn from the other and, together, work out what they can do to co-operate even more effectively. We’ve so far seen a pairing of an independent training provider, The Skills Company (represented by Ian Kerr), with an NHS employer (Ian Carruthers of University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust), and West Hertfordshire College (William Hill) and the leading digital blue-chip employer, Cisco UK & Ireland (Kathryn Baddeley). It’s very rewarding when a potential ‘elephant in the room’ situation produces such useful and collaborative discussion. A simple but very pertinent key point arose – i.e. that we should stop talking about the two parties, employer and learning/training provider, and include the third party: the learner. It is up to him or her, too, to make the work experience effective and beneficial, and very important that learners realise this.

Our keynote speakers/interviewees so far have covered very different perspectives on work experience. They’ve ranged from the extraordinary UK Fast, whose workplace breaks down virtually all conventions and, so, is a potential culture shock for those expecting work experience in a conventional environment, to the importance of developing employability for potential future employees of a global organisation in an industry where the competition for talent is far more aggressive than many of us realise: the airline world. As Mary Barry of British Airways said, you can teach skills, but what matters is attitude; work experience of course plays a key role in developing that.

In our “What’s Working” section, we’ve enjoyed finding out about EY Foundation’s work experience programmes, “Smart Futures” and “Our Future” – and how One Manchester provides work experience for large numbers of older people. We learnt about the many specific challenges of offering placements in working hospitals (with Chukwuebuka Nwannadi from Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust), e.g. infection control, and how Havering College is helping to pilot work placements in T-Levels, which are now under way and face many, many challenges.

All that’s alongside other content, including a new video fronted by Angela Rippon CBE, OBE, a committed supporter of Fair Train, which opens each conference.

Next week, our conferences move onto Bristol on Monday, Plumpton (near Lewes) on Thursday and Wolverhampton on Friday.  Our wide-ranging discussions and, importantly, our celebration of great work experience around the country will continue. Attendance is free of charge and can be booked on Eventbrite, searching for The Fair Train Expert Sessions. There are still a few spaces for Monday’s conference in Bristol, see here for more information. 

Rod Natkiel is Chief Executive of Fair Train.