Work experience is just as much about finding your path as adding kudos to your CV, but in today’s competitive environment, it is becoming an essential tool for getting a job. Over a third of recruiters who took part in a recent Highfliers survey of the graduate market warned that ‘irrespective of their academic achievements, graduates who have had no previous work experience...have little or no chance of receiving a job offer.’
HelloGrads spoke to employers, recruiters and recent graduates to bring you a three-part guide on work experience - why it’s worth it, where to find it, and how to nail your application. Here is part one:
Getting work experience is hugely worthwhile, even if you’re not yet sure what you want to do. It’s a short-term commitment, which gives you a chance to test the water - see what is actually involved in doing a certain job, find out what a company is really like to work for, or what sort of culture suits you.
‘Don’t listen to people who say that you should know what you want to do when you leave uni. Some have good idea but most don’t. So experience different things. Decide what you might like or be good at, what sort of skills you want to collect, and do it in a variety of places – different companies, go abroad, internships etc. It’s a chance to try a few things before you make a final decision about what you want to do - stretch yourself!
Think about what you’re getting from the experience. You will gain highly transferable skills, which you can use in other types of work. If you assemble those experiences, it will help you understand what you enjoy and where you can add value in the working world.'
– Mark Swain, a former headhunter and currently Director of Partnerships at Henley Business School
Employers won’t expect a new graduate to have loads of skills and experience, but they will want to see your potential, and this is where internships, volunteering or some industry-specific work experience can set you apart from the crowd.
‘Whilst a degree gives you qualifications & makes you employable, recruiters favour candidates who are work-ready. There’s no substitute for getting out there, observing how business is conducted, working as part of a team, even simple stuff like finding out whether or not you enjoy an office environment.’
– Patrick Burge - mentor and business advisor across several industries
What I wish I’d known when still at uni…
‘The main thing is that I wish I had done either a placement year, or an internship in one of my uni summer holidays. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time, but with hindsight I should have just done something finance-related. I think with any industry, you would really benefit from having some solid work experience behind you. That’s something I overlooked, and it has surprised me just HOW MUCH of a disadvantage this puts me at. Most companies hiring for roles I am interested in, only want someone with experience. So get some form of work experience sorted for your final year summer, if you haven’t already!’
– Henry, a recent Leeds graduate trying to get into Asset Management
Work experience provides an opportunity for organisations to try out prospective candidates and it’s well known that most employers consider their pool of interns first, when hiring for full-time positions. It's a particularly valuable tool for smaller companies, which don’t have the budget for big recruitment drives. So be proactive – if you’re interested in a company, get in touch.
Georgie didn’t expect much from her week’s unpaid work experience …
‘But, with some wise words from the mother hen telling me to make sure I was pro-active, helpful and that I didn’t leave the office precisely when the clock struck 5 (because it’s all about leaving an impression) – it all worked out rather well… guess where I’m working now?!
My advice – even if it’s just a week, get some work experience in you!’
– Georgie, a recent Geography graduate from University of Manchester, now working in Marketing
Even if it turns out not to be the job for you, the working environment will equip you with soft skills that you won’t acquire by sitting in lectures e.g. commercial awareness, time management and decision-making. These employability skills can be an important differentiator at graduate level, when you won’t have much professional experience or technical expertise.
In application forms and interviews, you will have specific examples to demonstrate your skills and attributes e.g. when you produced work quickly under pressure or how you worked within a team to resolve a problem.
You will make useful contacts, who can give plenty of pointers on progressing your career. Get to know them, and take their details - you never know what doors they could open…
‘Smile, be friendly and introduce yourself to everybody you'll be working with. Don't be afraid to ask people about their roles and how they got to where they are now - most people will be flattered that you’re interested!’
– Charlotte, property management intern who went on to work in the industry
‘Talking to colleagues and understanding what they do every day, how they got into the industry and then just generally getting to know people – that’s what really brought it to life and convinced me I’d like to work in this field.’
– Henry, work experience in an investment firm, about to start an internship in China
Practical experience can help you better understand and appreciate the theoretical concepts you’re studying, and will enable you to illustrate your academic work with real life examples.
The majority of internships must now be paid at least the minimum wage, although there are a few exceptions relating to charities, or students doing an internship as part of their course.
‘More than four-fifths of the country’s top graduate employers offered paid work experience programmes or internships for students and recent graduates during the 2017-2018 academic year, providing almost 13,000 places’.
Next time, we'll give you top tips on planning your application.
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