Getting ahead: your guide to work experience

Competition for graduate jobs is intense. Antonia Shaw and Liam O’Brien show you how to stand out from the crowd

Work experience

Competition for graduate jobs is intense. Antonia Shaw and Liam O’Brien show you how to stand out from the crowd

Work experience is essential for the vast majority of careers. It’s extremely important to distinguish yourself from the bevy of other candidates inevitably throwing themselves at every available graduate job in your career field, whether it be law, medicine, journalism, PR or any one of a host of others. Along with getting the best degree you can, helpful, researched and specific work experience or internships should be at the forefront of your mind, regardless of whether you’re a first year, or at the end of your degree without a fixed job offer. We spoke to Robert Partridge, head of the University of York’s Careers service, and employees of Law and PR firms involved in sifting the best new graduates from piles of application forms, searching for professional, informed advice on the best way to go about getting work experience, and how to make a good impression when you’re there.

Step 1 – Approaching companies

There are a number of approaches you can choose when trying to get a work placement or work on a graduate scheme. If you’re looking to get a place on the scheme of a large company like KPMG, it’s important to get your foot in the door early on. Partridge commented “Most of the bigger employers have structured work experience schemes, subject to rigorous selection, and I would expect that places on the majority of these go quickly”.

Even if an application to prestigious, competitive employers doesn’t result in success, “There is a wide array of national schemes, such as the Shell STEP scheme which places students with small and medium sized enterprises, and some of these may still be recruiting.” Before enrolling on a scheme, however, or if your work isn’t catered for by a particular scheme, or if you simply require highly specific work experience, approaching companies yourself can be a daunting idea, Partridge offers some key pointers. “Ad hoc experience may arise from friend and family networks and cold calling, but cold approaches need to be very well researched. It is important not to forget opportunities literally on your doorstep: for example, each year, a proportion of students find summer work in research related activities within the University.” The University can’t be relied upon to do everything for you though. Partridge adds “The University does not operate any formal work experience schemes, insofar as I am aware.”

To get an employer’s perspective on filtering applications, we asked a top QC for some general advice. “It’s common sense to explore all branches of a profession before making a more specific choice. The main thing is to do your research. Most good companies maintain websites which will give an overview of the type of work done.”

We also pressed him on the best time to apply. “As vacations are obviously popular,” he answered, “places in law firms (and I’d assume everywhere else) tend to get overfilled during those months. A telephone call might yield dividends as to when is the best time to apply.”
Julia Conroy, of PR and marketing agency Kitcatt Nohr, emphasised the importance of work experience. She said: “Aside from forging useful links, it demonstrates to employers your commitment and genuine interest in the field. By taking a short work placement, you could decide if this really is the career path for you. Conroy advises students to apply for work experience a few weeks before their holidays start. That way you may get a head start over other students jostling for prized places.” The message is clear, then, apply at the right time, force yourself to make those all-important phonecalls, do your research, and keep an open mind in case the particular field you get work experience in doesn’t fully live up to your expectations.

Step 2 – Your rights

As with any job, it’s important to know your rights whilst on work experience. Partridge said “I would expect an employer to treat anyone engaged in work experience in exactly the same way that they treat any other member of staff, but note there is a difference between work experience (where the student is actively working for the employer and should be recompensed for their work), work shadowing (in which the student is simply observing work practices) and volunteering, which is a value adding activity of a philanthropic nature.

Being aware of your rights can make you confident, and sure of not being unfairly treated. The Disabilities Act and sexual harassment laws are still applicable for you. So, if you feel as though you are being victimised, be it sexually or racially, go straight to your line manager and register a complaint. Thankfully, such occurrences are rare, but if you are unlucky and find yourself in an awkward or upsetting situation, it is important that you report it. A good line manager will, most likely, be very grateful to hear the complaint as it will allow them to deal with the relevant member of staff and ensure such occurrences don’t happen again.

You also have a right to be given a basic health and safety code for your work place. The extent of this will differ from placement to placement based on the requirements of the work place, as a hospital, for example, will have a greater need for this than a standard office. Wherever you are working, you should be aware of the location of neatest fire exit and who the resident first aider is. Most companies will ensure you receive this, to cover their backs as much as yours.

For longer placements, you should receive grounding in the companies policies regarding sickness and personal leave and may have to sign a contract regarding such information. Make sure you read any contract through thoroughly before you sign it. Although you have the same, basic worker rights as everyone else, it should be noted, that whilst you are on a work placement, it is highly unlikely that you will be entitled to any staff benefits. This means that you will usually go without wages, pensions, health packages and the like. If you are lucky, your temporary employer may offer to cover travel and possibly even your lunch expenses, although they have no obligation to do either. So you may have to be prepared to tighten the purse strings just a little bit.

It’s important, of course, to exercise a bit of common sense and not to quote your rights at your employer the moment you aren’t unamused by something you hear in the office. If you don’t feel that you’re fully conscious of safety issues in the office, or feel mistreated, don’t hesitate to say so.

Step 3 – Do’s and Don’ts

When in the workplace for the first time, it’s easy to worry about small things, so Partridge gave us some tips. “I forget people’s names all the time and I think you quickly develop a means of dealing with these situations.

In the first few days in a new role, forgetting names is almost inevitable – induction tends to be a whirlwind process – but after a month it begins to get embarrassing. Just remember the name of the person in charge (and the person who is most likely to clear up after you when you mess up)! Being late is really not a good idea when trying to make a good impression, so apologise directly.” And remember, if in doubt about what to wear, a suit always shows you’ve put in the effort.