In all my years working in recruitment and career coaching – particularly with students, graduates and young people – there’s one thing that I bang on about almost constantly: how vitally important it is that young people get some work experience under their belts before they enter the jobs market.
I’m not the only one to feel this way.
A survey of UK business leaders last month found that 93% of them want compulsory work experience reinstated in schools, five years after the coalition government scrapped it.
In addition, more than two-thirds (68%) agreed work experience helped prepare young people for the world of work, and more than half (57%) stated it helps instil a strong work ethic.
Asked about the main problem they encountered when hiring young people, more than one in three of these business decision makers (39%) said most applying for jobs have little or no experience in the workplace.
There are currently 4.3million young people aged 16-24 in the UK, and if you’re one of them, the chances are you haven’t had the work experience you need.
The most recent stats show that 517,000 young people aged 16-24 were unemployed in July-September 2017 in the UK (around 12%) – and for many, lack of work experience is the reason.
I truly believe work experience is the best way to test out possible career choices. It’s also great for learning and developing workplace skills as well as helping you understand your strengths outside of academia.
The other benefits: If you really enjoy your work experience, you’ll be fired up about succeeding in your career, you’ll have expanded your network and you may even land your perfect first job.
But if you don’t love it, that’s great too. You can rule out that option and be clear about what you don’t want. Hopefully, you’ll also have gained some transferable skills and knowledge that will boost your CV.
So how can you get work experience?
Take matters into your own hands. Speak to your work experience coordinator or careers team at school or college. You can also ask family and friends if you could shadow them for a day or a week at their work. Even just a few days work shadowing with an employer would be hugely beneficial. It may not give you time to develop job-specific skills, but it can give you insight into the work involved.
Organising it yourself also shows you have motivation and commitment. If there is a specific company you are interested in working with, why not write to them directly? You can use LinkedIn to research what local companies actually do, and the key people to contact.
I know of students who have written to their local MP and gained an amazing insight into politics from shadowing them for a week.
Consider a BTEC or vocational programme
You could get work experience as part of a vocational programme, such as a BTEC diploma or apprenticeship. You could also consider an internship, a higher education course which offers a work placement - known as a sandwich course - or a foundation degree.
There is no better way to understand what a particular career will be like. It really is a case of try before you buy.
How do I make my work experience really valuable?
Whatever work experience you get , try to meet as many people as you can and get as involved as you can. Turn up on time, look professional, be interested and ask questions. You can also volunteer to help with a particular project or take ownership of some responsibility, however small it may be.
Remember to take some notes of your achievements, challenges faced and duties performed for future reference. Being able to refer back will help you write your CV and LinkedIn profile, or complete personal statement-style questions.
How should I describe my work experience on my CV?
This is critical. Everything you do, whether work experience or extracurricular interests, should always loop back to the competencies and skills the employer needs.
Go back to your notes. Hirers are always looking for candidates who can demonstrate teamwork, a strong work ethic, and communications and organisation skills. Can you demonstrate that you achieved these in your work experience? Phrases such as high energy, relationship building, ambitious, curious and business savvy also feature in every conversation I have with hiring managers.
The big question to ask yourself when writing your CV is:
“What skills is my future employer looking for and how can I demonstrate I have them?”
Your CV should never simply be a list of your day-to-day responsibilities. Use what you’ve learned doing work experience to demonstrate that you have the skills the employer is looking for. Back this up with examples, facts and figures if you can.
It doesn’t always work out this way, but I have seen many examples of unpaid work placements translating into paid internships and then permanent job offers. You just never know...
So, get out there, look around at every available opportunity and get that work experience!