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Work experience is any experience that a person gains while working in a specific field or occupation, but the expression is widely used to mean a type of volunteer work that is commonly intended for young people — often students — to get a feel for professional working environments. The American equivalent term is internship.
Though the placements are usually unpaid, travel and food expenses are sometimes covered, and at the end of the appointment, a character reference is usually provided. Trainees usually have the opportunity to network and make contacts among the working personnel, and put themselves forward for forthcoming opportunities for paid work.
Many employers in the more sought after professions (e.g. TV, politics, journalism) demand that every new entrant undergo a period of unpaid "work experience" before being able to get paid work.
Work experience is offered on the national curriculum for students in years 10 and 11 in the United Kingdom (4th year in Scotland), Australia and New Zealand; every student who wishes to do so has a statutory right to take work experience. In 2011, however, the Wolf Review of Vocational Education proposed a significant policy change that—to reflect the fact that almost all students now stay past the age of 16—the requirement for pre-16 work experience in the UK should be removed. Work experience in this context is when students in an adult working environment more or less act as an employee, but with the emphasis on learning about the world of work. Placements are limited by safety and security restrictions, insurance cover and availability, and do not necessarily reflect eventual career choice but instead allow a broad experience of the world of work.
A student who fails to find a placement may sometimes be required to attend school every day—continuing the normal school day, or doing a placement around the school such as aiding the caretaker for example, or helping out elsewhere in the school, such as with language and PE departments, or with ICT technicians.
Students are not prohibited from working at a company outside the conurbation of the city or abroad. Routine safety checks on the companies are now more thorough and students who arrange placements at failed companies are forced to find a new placement; companies that fail to comply with statutory requirements for insurance and child protection may be prohibited from officially taking students. (This depends upon the LEA.)
Most students do not get paid for work experience. However, some employers pay students, as this is considered part of their education. The duration varies according to the student's course, and other personal circumstances. Most students go out on work experience for one or two weeks in a year. Some students work in a particular workplace, perhaps one or two days a week for extended periods of time throughout the year—either for vocation reasons and commitment to alternative curricula or because they have social or behavioural problems.
At university level, work experience is often offered between the second and final years of an undergraduate degree course, especially in the science, engineering and computing fields. Courses of this nature are often called sandwich courses, with the work experience year itself known as the sandwich year. During this time, the students on work placement have the opportunity to use the skills and knowledge gained in their first two years, and see how they are applied to real world problems. This offers them useful insights for their final year and prepares them for the job market once their course has finished. Some companies sponsor students in their final year at university with the promise of a job at the end of the course. This is an incentive for the student to perform well during the placement as it helps with two otherwise unwelcome stresses: the lack of money in the final year, and finding a job when the University course ends.