Getting you ready for life beyond education
Not sure what you want to do for a living? Need some guidance before you pick subjects for college or uni? Work experience can help. Here’s an introduction…
Why does work experience matter?
If you’ve never experienced work before, work experience is a good way to learn about what it involves. Going to work in almost any environment – an office, shop, factory, outdoors, you name it – is very different to school or college. The hours are longer, you have different responsibilities, and there are all manner of curious rituals to observe and learn about, many of which revolve around who makes the tea. (Hint: if you’re on work experience, it’s you.)
It’s also a great way of trying a career before you fully buy into it. No point spending time training to be an accountant or a joiner if you quickly find that you hate numbers, or that handling wood gives you the crawling horrors. Instead, getting a few weeks’ work experience while you’re still at school can give you some insight into a career, helping you decide whether or not it’s for you.
It’s as much about getting a taste for the working environment as the job itself. You’re always going to find it a bit strange compared to being at school, but if you discover that you can’t stand being in an office, for example, or that working outdoors actually doesn’t suit you, those are good things to know. Then you can make changes to your plans based on what you learn.
Finally, getting work experience looks very good to employers, colleges and universities. It demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to improve your skills, shows that you’ve done something outside of your studies, that you’re organised, that you’ve thought about your future – mainly that you’re interested in the world and want to be involved.
Who can do it?
Anyone can (and should) do work experience. It’s not just limited to when you’re at school: it can be valuable to arrange work experience at various points in your life, whether you’re at college or uni, or even when you already have a career but are thinking about switching and doing something else.
It comes back to the idea of trying before buying. Plus, these days we’re all likely to swap jobs several times over our working lives, which means we might well want to get work experience several times too.
When is the right time to do work experience?
There isn’t really a ‘wrong’ time to do it, but it very much depends on what else you’ve got going on. For example, doing a few weeks’ work experience as a clown might well be awesome, but it’s maybe not something to do during the build up to exams: daubing yourself in makeup and scaring all hell out of the world at large isn’t going to help your revision very much.
Instead, plan your work experience for times when you’ll be able to focus on it and get the most out of it. You might find that your school or college sets time aside during the term for work experience; or you could arrange some yourself during the holidays.
Equally, some employers have dedicated work experience schemes that they run over the summer, so that’s another option to look out for when you’re doing your research.
What does it involve?
It really depends on the kind of employer you spend your work experience with. For some people it might be about getting a taster of life in retail; for others it could be about office life; or you could be getting experience of selling cars, working behind the scenes at a theatre, learning to bake cookies, fixing bikes, designing apps, getting to grips with plumbing….people do an amazing variety of things, and work experience gives you the chance to find out more about some of them.
Don’t forget, you’re not limited to just one attempt at work experience: you can arrange as many different placements as you have time for, which is particularly good if you’re trying to decide between a few different kinds of work; or if you want to see different sides of the same job.
How do I get work experience?
First of all you need to think about the kind of work experience you want. It’s good to remember that work experience doesn’t commit you to anything, it’s simply a chance to find out more, so keep an open mind. Make a list of the careers and employers that appeal to you, and talk it over with your friends and family.
Next, speak to your teachers or a career adviser, as they may have useful contacts and suggestions. Family and friends can also be helpful. Know someone who does a job that you’re interested in? Why not ask if they can help you get some work experience? People are usually happy to help.
Once you have a few places you know you’d like to apply to, it’s time to do some research. See if their website has any information about work experience – they may well have a programme you can apply to – or find out their contact details so you can get in touch. The best thing is to call them up and ask who to speak to about work experience, and see what they recommend.
Whether you speak to someone on the phone or email them (or contact them via social media sites like LinkedIn), the same rules apply: be polite, be calm, be clear. Explain who you are, what you’re studying, that you’re looking for work experience and that you’d love the opportunity to come and spend some time working for them. Again, your teachers or family can help you prepare for this bit.
Five ways to get the most out of your work experience
1 – Be on time. It makes a good impression.
2 – Be enthusiastic. If you show enthusiasm, you’ll get enthusiasm back.
3 – Be helpful. Get involved and always ask what you can do to help.
4 – Be attentive. Ask questions, make notes, take pics and videos.
5 – Be impressive. Work hard, be nice, follow up with a thank you letter – it’ll all help when you need a reference, or apply for a job there in the future.
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