The very mention of the words 'work experience' has been known to cause many a small business owner or manager to shudder – images of pale-faced youths struggling to look busy with something other than photocopying, and staff searching desperately to invent admin jobs that don't involve much explanation or thought, spring to mind.

Yet, at our recent work experience Awards, it was 'Best Kept Secrets', a small candle making company from Northumberland, which claimed the overall prize by a clear margin, despite competition from multinational rivals with established work experience schemes, including BP, Intel and the National Grid.

What the victory demonstrates is just how much, with a clear vision in place, a work experience programme can achieve. According to the NCWE, Best Kept Secrets’ success should send a clear signal to other SMEs that setting up a work experience placement needn’t be difficult, and that it can bring positive business benefits to organisations of all shapes and sizes.

Best Kept Secrets’ most recent intern worked on marketing for the business and her efforts had a tangible impact on the bottom-line. Tasked, for example, with boosting sales for one of the company’s weaker lines – a beeswax candle-making kit for schools – the student re-packaged the product to include lesson plans and teaching materials and made contact with a third party that supplies resources direct to schools, boosting sales substantially.

So how do companies go about setting up an effective placement?

In many ways offering students work experience is just like taking on any new employee; there should be a job description and an induction programme; support in the form of a mentor or supervisor and, most importantly, there should be an evaluation at the end of the placement period to ensure that the student understands what they have achieved, not just in terms of their contribution to the organisation, but also the employability skills they have begun to develop that are necessary for the workplace.

In visiting small businesses and assessing their placement programmes as part of the Awards, I’ve been deeply impressed with how many have embedded work experience firmly into their working practices.

The diversity of the small businesses shortlisted for the best SME work experience placement – from a niche fashion designer, Emmeline 4 Re, to the eventually winner, Best Kept Secrets, a candle-making company – has convinced me that the whole sector is beginning to understand the value of work experience.

What has come through quite clearly is that small business owners and managers recognise the need to attract graduates to work in the sector and that their reason for setting up placement programmes, some of which have only been established recently, is to show them the reality of their working environment.

In many cases students are simply not aware of some of the organisations in the small business sector and the jobs they offer. Through work experience, businesses can break down the misconceptions of students about SMEs and compete more effectively with much larger companies for the cream of graduate talent.

With a well structured placement like the one at Best Kept Secrets, not only do students get immersed in the workings of the company from day one, providing them with excellent commercial experience, but they can begin to make a real contribution to the business early on.

For SMEs whose small teams are often under immense pressure, the promise of a fresh perspective and ‘extra pair of hands’ to tackle new projects is surely too good to be ignored.

Far from being a burden, work experience students can quickly become an asset – and they are one which more small businesses should take advantage of.

Small businesses interested in setting up a work experience placement can obtain copies of Red Hot Talent, which contains practical advice for setting up a placement, from the NCWE at enquires@work-experience.org.

© Crimson Business Ltd. 2006