Promoting social inclusion in the labour market

Policy guides

Government work experience schemes: what are the differences?

Government work experience schemes have been in the media recently and a fierce debate sparked. Concerns have been raised about large private companies offering work experience to benefit claimants, in which, some argue, they are carrying out the same tasks as paid employees while receiving benefits.

The schemes have also been described as ‘work fare’, requiring benefit claimants to work in return for their benefit. These complaints have led to some employers withdrawing from the scheme and others going to great lengths to emphasise the voluntary nature of the scheme and the progression to paid employment.

Much of the media coverage has shown a lack of clarity about the many different schemes that exist, and the conditions on which participants enter them. This article explains the differences between government work experience schemes and lists which are mandatory and which voluntary. All schemes are exempt from national minimum wage legislation, so benefit claimants can undertake work experience while receiving benefits and employers can offer placements without paying the minimum wage.

This guide describes the seven current schemes. These are also summarised below.


Normal eligibility

Length of placement

Mandatory or voluntary?

Work experience

Young people on JSA, not worked before

Up to eight weeks

Voluntary, risk of sanction if leave

Sector based work academy

Any age on JSA

Up to six weeks

Voluntary, risk of sanction if leave

Mandatory Work Activity

Any age on JSA

Up to four weeks


Work Programme (if referred to work experience)

Participation in Work Programme

Up to four weeks

Mandatory if on JSA

Work Trials

Any age on JSA

Up to six weeks, usually two


Project SEARCH

Learning disability or autism

Up to a year


Community work for long-term unemployed

On JSA for more than two years in pilot areas

Up to six months


Government work experience

The government’s work experience scheme is voluntary. Those on Jobseeker’s Allowance aged 16 to 24 can volunteer to undertake work experience for between two and eight weeks once they have been claiming JSA for 13 weeks, although advisers do have flexibility to refer people who have been claiming JSA for less time. Work experience takes place for between 25 and 30 hours per week. Young people carrying out work experience continue to receive Jobseeker’s Allowance, and must therefore continue to look for work and attend regular jobsearch reviews. Jobcentre Plus may offer help with travel expenses and childcare costs.

In some exceptional circumstances someone may be offered work experience if they are older than 24.

Work experience does not necessarily lead to a job; the objective is to help young people who don’t have work experience already to build up so called ‘employability skills’ and fill gaps in their CV. Both of these are important factors in helping people – particularly young people – to get a job.

While work experience is voluntary, anyone who cuts their placement short after more than one week may have their benefits stopped for two weeks. *

* Since the time of writing the DWP ministers have met employers and agreed that unemployed people will not have benefits docked if they leave work placements early, according to the Guardian.

Sector Based Work Academies

Sector Based Work Academies (SBWAs) are a form of work experience that include short, accredited training provided by an organisation funded by the Skills Funding Agency (usually a college or private training provider).

SBWAs last up to six weeks and are voluntary for claimants. They combine a work placement with training based either in the workplace or in a classroom. The training should usually lead to a sector-based qualification recognised as the entry level in that area – for example retail, hospitality, facilities management or care.

Successful completion of a SBWA is meant to lead to a guaranteed interview for a real vacancy.

SBWAs are voluntary but, like work experience placements, failure to complete the SBWA can lead to a benefit sanction.

Mandatory Work Activity

A Jobcentre Plus adviser may refer someone to a work placement that is of ‘benefit to the local community’ if they feel a claimant has little or no understanding of the behaviour that someone needs to show in order to get a job and keep it. This scheme is known as Mandatory Work Activity. Normally this can happen at any point from three months into a claim. If referred to Mandatory Work Activity, claimants must take part or they lose their benefit. They could be placed in a wide range of roles. This could include for example doing maintenance work for housing residents, renovating and recycling old furniture, working in a local sports club or supporting charitable organisations. However the work can also include activity that generates a profit for the employer, as long as there is a clear community benefit.

The scheme is delivered by a range of organisations from the private, voluntary and third sector, who are paid by the government to organise placements and to provide support to claimants.

The work placement involves up to 30 hours of work a week for four weeks, unless otherwise agreed by Jobcentre Plus. Funding is available for travel costs and childcare during the time on the placement, there are no other additional payments to the claimant.

If someone on a Mandatory Work Activity placement fails to turn up without good reason, they will receive a sanction of their Jobseeker’s Allowance payments. The first time this happens, claimants lose their benefit for 13 weeks. The second time it happens within a 12-month period, they will lose their benefit for 26 weeks. Once sanctioned, they will not be required to take part in another work placement.

Work Programme

The Work Programme is not a work experience scheme. It is a single programme of support for all those who have been out of work for an extended period. It has replaced all previous employment programmes except for Work Choice.

Specialist providers deliver the Work Programme for the Department for Work and Pensions. There are 18 ‘prime’ providers that hold contracts with the department, and that work with a network of around 900 sub-contractors. Claimants stay on the Work Programme for up to two years.

Work Programme providers can refer participants to work experience, which is organised by the provider. The claimants must continue to meet the conditions of claiming their benefit. Whether or not participation on the Work Programme is mandatory or voluntary depends on the customer group. For jobseekers referred to work experience, participation in the placement must be mandatory in order to comply with national minimum wage legislation.

Work Trials

Work trials can be used by employers and claimants as a ‘trial period’ before a job offer is taken up. They can last up to six weeks but are typically around two weeks in length. Work trials are voluntary, and those who take part continue to receive benefits and are paid expenses, for example for travel.

Project SEARCH

Project SEARCH is a programme that funds supported internships for young people with learning disabilities and autism.

The programme is run by a partnership of an education provider, a supported employment provider and the host employer, all based on site full-time at the host employer.

Project SEARCH is a year-long programme with a typical cost per place of around £10,500. Inclusion has recently carried out an evaluation of Project SEARCH for the Office for Disability Issues. This can be downloaded from the Office for Disability Issues website.

Community work for the long-term unemployed (the ‘Community Action Programme’)

The Prime Minister announced in December that the Department for Work and Pensions will test a new programme in four areas, which will require those who have been on JSA for more than two years to do community work of 30 hours per week, for up to six months.

This programme will be mandatory for claimants, with sanctions for those who fail to complete the placement. The Prime Minister has stated that the government intends to roll this out nationally in 2013, for those claimants who have completed two years with a Work Programme provider and failed to find employment.

Recent developments (April 2012)

Further reading

Workfare’s fair? a blog post by Tony Wilson, Director of Policy at Inclusion

Project SEARCH Evaluation: Final Report 
Work Experience: more to be done  a blog post by Dave Simmonds, Inclusion's Chief Executive