Steve Crabb offers guidance to employers keen to follow M& S’s Marks and Start initiative

Marks and Spencer may have had some ‘iffy’ financial results recently, but the company shows no signs of slowing up when it comes to employment-led community initiatives. Marks & Start, its latest brainwave, rightly generated tons of great coverage for the retail giant earlier this month, building on the company’s established reputation for helping the homeless find work.
In a nutshell, the new programme involves offering 10,000 work experience opportunities to people who usually find it hard to obtain a job. Over the next three years, placements of between two and four weeks are being offered to pupils (including those from deprived areas), people with disabilities, parents returning to work, young unemployed people, homeless job-seekers and students who are the first in their family to go to university.
There’s a learning and development pay-off for Marks and Spencer in addition to the positive PR that this initiative is attracting: every participant will be allocated a ‘buddy’ or mentor from the existing workforce.
Staff who have worked previously with the homeless on work experience say overwhelmingly that it has been good for the development of their own skills.
And 30% of the 455 homeless people who have completed Marks and Spencer’s existing programme have now got jobs, so it looks like a win-win situation. The lucky participants will also get travel expenses, a uniform (where necessary) and a reference (if they ask for one).
However, other employers which are thinking of following suit need to take care: one high profile company has been hit by a major bill from the Inland Revenue, which reportedly claimed seven years’ worth of income tax and national insurance for everyone it had had on work experience.
Apparently, if you give a work experience placement to a job-seeker (as opposed to a school pupil or a student) you should pay them the minimum wage if they stay more than a fortnight.
The Inland Revenue won’t comment in individual cases, and there seems to be a lot of confusion in government departments over whether existing legislation actually covers work experience or not, so this case is a hard one to get to the bottom of. But at the very least, employers should ensure that learning agreements are in place when someone on work experience starts, setting out what both parties expect from the placement.
It’s fair enough for the tax people to clamp down on companies which treat willing work experience applicants as cheap labour, but it would be deeply unfair if their action ends up hurting firms such as Marks and Spencer which are so evidently striving to be socially responsible corporate citizens.
John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, made the point recently that the Marks and Spencer scheme was a perfect illustration of how the ethical side of corporate social responsibility could mesh perfectly with hard business realities: in a tight labour market, “it is vital that more use is made of the UK’s massive reserve of economically inactive people of working age”, he argued. However, Philpott cautions employers to check with the Department of Work and Pensions that their proposed work experience schemes are going to be accepted as true bridges into the world of work, rather than creative ways to rustle up some cheap labour.
If you are planning to set up a scheme, it’s worth checking out, the website of the National Council for Work Experience. This charity targets students, but its website includes content which could be applicable in other situations. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development ( also has a range of resources for employers who want to take on work experience people.
n Steve Crabb is editor of People Management