David Docherty, CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Business and Chairman of Placer explains why work experience can help diversify an organisation’s workforce and shares advice on how HR managers can put this into action.

Diversifying the workforce is high on employers’ agendas. Reports on issues such as social mobility and the gender pay gap continue to hit headlines, and October saw the Prime Minister launch a project challenging businesses, and society, to reduce the employment gap for ethnic minorities. The report highlighted that those from ethnic minority backgrounds face significant disadvantage when entering the workforce.

The figures are a gloomy read. Especially when there is so much evidence that cultivating a diverse workforce in not just the ‘right thing to do’ but directly impacts the bottom line. Having a diverse range of minds around the table brings fresh ideas and approaches, and improves decision making among other advantages – all valuable additions to existing teams. And in terms of the tangible ‘hard’ benefits, McKinsey has released data showing companies with a diverse mix of employees are 35% more likely to innovate and outperform their competitors.

Many employers are waking up to the positive impact of diversity and doing great work in the area. But for those businesses seeking to transform consciousness into change – what action can be taken to ensure an effective programme is in place? A key part of the solution is to cultivate diversity from the very outset – and that starts with a quality programme of work experience to connect with a wide range of young talent. So how can businesses use work experience to diversify?

Build a diverse talent pool

Through the delivery of formal work experience, offering opportunities to undergraduates, businesses can begin to build up a diverse pool of candidates and potential future employees. A talent pipeline of students, who have gained an understanding of your industry and developed the skills your business needs, is of enormous value when graduate or entry-level roles arise in the short and medium term. Not to mention the cost-savings on graduate recruitment, employers should nurture and communicate positively with work experience candidates so that when roles arise they can cherry pick the best minds for the job.

A talent pool with the right mix of genders, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds ensures a range of minds can be brought to the table. Creative tasks, product innovation, problem-solving and reaching new markets, are just some of the critical business areas where a diverse team deliver improved results. Through work experience, this variety of viewpoints can be brought into the organisation from the very start, helping companies to avoid groupthink and inspire innovation.

Use technology to move beyond word-of-mouth networks

Technology permeates so much of our working day, and for HR teams is a critical part of recruitment and staff management. It is also a useful leveller, now accessible to most, regardless of background. Yet research from the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) reveals a key channel for businesses to source work experience placements is too often through word-of-mouth. Not only is this inefficient but it can perpetuate a ‘who-you-know’ culture, only bringing in people from the circles of existing staff and overlooking potential talent among those without the ‘right’ connections.

Technology such as Placer – a new work experience app that directly connects businesses, students and universities – reduces unconscious bias by matching students with employers based on their interests and skills alone. This has benefit in two ways; firstly, it levels the playing field for the student as employers’ shortlist candidates based on their potential not their past. Secondly, presenting employers to students in the same way, it enables students to look beyond familiar big brand names, and learn where their skills and interests fit with a wide range of employers and SMEs they may not have previously considered.

Using technology to bring structure and scale to the way work experience is offered, widens access to a more diverse pool of talent helping to bring fresh talent with new ideas into the organisation.

Formalise a work experience programme

At their core, both work experience and diversity are of benefit both to the business and the individual. Therefore, to get the best out of work experience placements, developing a formal policy and programme is essential. A structured programme of work experiences that are advertised publicly, highlighting the key skills required by the post, allows opportunities to be accessed by a wider range of potential candidates.

In addition, through identifying specific, non-urgent projects that can be given to work experience students or understanding the skills the business needs to recruit for, employers can ensure they bring in work experience candidates based on merit. Work experience candidates can be recruited based on their capacity to undertake the projects set, not on any existing connection to the business.

At all levels, employers should be recruiting on merit and not on ethnic or socio-economic background, and work experience is no exception.

Placer is a new social enterprise created through a partnership between not-for-profit the National Centre for Universities and Business, Jisc, and Unite Students. It enables employers to reach a diverse young talent pool of digitally native students with key skills, far beyond their word-of-mouth networks with just one, currently free, post. Employers can sign-up to Placer at placer.co.uk.