Moving on up: Improving social mobility with Virtual Work Experience

Victoria Anderson 3 Jun 2021

Work experience is a great way to inspire young people to pursue careers in competitive industries which they may otherwise not even consider. But when work experience typically involves going into offices to see the job first-hand, what happens when no one can leave the house?

With offices closed during lockdown, the pandemic has had a significant detrimental impact on access to work experience, which in turn poses a real challenge to social mobility. Ultimately those from privileged backgrounds are likely to continue to receive guidance about the multitude of careers which are open to them, but for many others the withdrawal of work experience placements leaves them at a disadvantage.

In March this year, in my role as an Associate at Schillings and as CEO of social mobility charity BVL, I worked with my colleagues at Schillings to tackle that problem by way of a new virtual work experience programme. The programme was open to 16 to 18 year olds studying their A-Levels at non-fee paying schools across England and Wales. The aim of the project was to take the most important parts of work experience – improving awareness of opportunities, increased understanding of the nature of the job, a boost in confidence – and translate them into an entirely remote working world. The result was a 2 week-long programme which saw 12 young people receive an insight into the full breadth of Schillings’ multidisciplinary work, via workshops designed and led by our legal, intelligence, cyber, critical risk and clients and markets teams, plus a bonus careers and CV building workshop. This unique programme meant that unlike traditional work placements, which often restrict participants to trying out just one industry, the young people involved in this experience were given the opportunity to learn about a wide range of potential careers.

First up on the schedule was a media law workshop. Led by Schillings partner Ben Hobbs, the legal team challenged the students to advise fictional clients on tough privacy and reputational issues. What would they do if a newspaper was planning to publish photographs of their client’s house? Would they apply for an injunction? How would they advise a client if false allegations were due to be published about them? It didn’t take long for the students to step into the shoes of a lawyer and they began fiercely defending their client’s rights. One student commented that they “found it really fun to work through [the scenarios] with the professionals and other students whilst developing our arguments against the allegations. It was good to do an interactive activity and it allowed me to develop my public speaking skills.”

The workshop led by the Schillings Critical Risk team, which provided an insight into Schillings’ kidnap and ransom work, was also popular with the students. One benefit of the virtual nature of the programme was that the team were able to arrange for the session to end with a surprise guest talk and Q&A from Schillings Response Consultant, Nigel Brennan. Nigel amazed the young people with his story of being kidnapped and surviving captivity in Somalia, which the students described as ‘unique’ and ‘eye-opening’.

I can confidently say that the programme was an overwhelming success. In addition to taking away the knowledge and confidence we had hoped to provide the students, following the experience one student commented:It made me realise people who work in these firms are definitely not one type fits all; there is space for many different types of people.”

The benefits did not only extend to the students participating. Staff from departments across the whole firm took part in the programme, with many saying that designing the workshops was a great opportunity to collaborate with their colleagues in a completely different way and that it was a fantastic opportunity to share their work with young people and to hopefully make a difference in their lives. Following on from this great success,  we will be continuing to work with the young people for another six months, having now paired each of the student participants up with their own mentor from the firm. Their mentors will provide them with even more guidance and advice, which we hope will put them in the best possible position as they start out in their careers.

Overall, I am delighted that Schillings and BVL were able to offer this experience. At a time when young people are facing so many challenges, it is all the more important for organisations to be bold and find a way to keep the (virtual) door open to the next generation.