The benefits of work experience have never been in doubt but the importance has grown to the point where both words Work and Experience are now spelled with capitals and its enhanced curricular status is now known by the official abbreviation WEX.  Careers Leaders in schools are under pressure to ensure all pupils have some form of interaction with employers in order to comply with #5 and #6 of the eight Gatsby benchmarks for accreditation as providers of Good Career Guidance.  

Learning but not Earning…still ok.

There is much to be gained from this and it is a regrettable side-effect of its importance that WEX is invariably unpaid.  Basic economics tells us that prices are set by the forces of supply and demand and we have a situation whereby demand for WEX so outstrips supply that the effective cost to the young person is sky high. Let’s not discuss the stories heard where you actually have to pay for it (bribery does happen) but because WEX is considered more of a privilege than a rite of passage young people do it for nothing.  They’re just grateful for the opportunity.

Best-case scenario is that employers throw open their doors, welcome you in and give you a really good look at how the business works. In return you get the benefit of picking up some contacts, learning some commercial awareness and finding things out about your own strengths and weaknesses etc, etc. The list is a long one, and at the same time the employer is also having a good look at YOU, as a potential hire at a later date. Everybody’s happy.

However, what so often happens is that you represent cheap labour and you are put to work as if you were a regular employee – except that you’re not paid. This is sometimes unavoidable. Perhaps you’ve been so impressive that not only have you made yourself useful but indispensable too (the ultimate goal) and as long as you’re getting value from it you can maximise your chances of your WEX morphing into a full-time job. Everybody’s still happy.

Neither Earning nor Learning

But what about the less-good scenario where you aren’t seeing any benefit at all?  This blog is not the place for a rant against employers for taking advantage of WEX applicants. Strictly speaking, if you’re asked to perform a task that would otherwise be done by a paid employee then you should be paid too, but where the boundaries lie between what is voluntary and compulsory is a grey area.  In theory, since there is no employment contract you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but it can be hard to refuse. Bear in mind though that requests to complete tasks over the weekend, be on hand for 40hrs per week rather than the original 20 suggested and pleas to stay on for an extra few days in order to finish a project should all trigger the thought that “I should be getting paid for this”. 

The only boundary we’re going to be exploring here is the one between Learning and Not Learning.  

WEX is only good experience (one day this will be aka GEX) if you’re learning something. That WEX bullet-point is going to have to deserve its place on your CV and if you didn’t learn anything at the time you can do it retrospectively with a tried-and-tested discipline that will stand up to scrutiny in interview*. Do it right and you will one day get successfully hired to do a paid job that you enjoy, with a proper learning curve.

Best-case scenario: Earning AND Learning.  

But until you get to that point, just one of the two might have to be enough.

*Work Savvy Commercial Awareness