A work placement is a period of supervised work, where you’ll have the opportunity to experience working in a specific role with a company.
A common problem for school leavers and university graduates alike is that employers want to see work experience as well as relevant qualifications.
Leaving school after your GCSEs or A-levels and trying to find a job without experience can be tricky and the same applies if you’re leaving university with a degree but no first-hand experience.
‘Work placements are a great way to develop your skills and build your experience.’
Why do a work placement?
Work placements enable you to gain relevant experience working with a company in the area of work you’re qualified for, while developing the practical skills you’ll need to do the job.
Whether you’re still at school, or studying at university, organising a work placement is a smart move at any point in your career. The more experience you get under your belt, the more you’ll have to write about on your CV and speak about in job interviews.
What are the main benefits?
There are many benefits to doing a work placement, the main one being that it can help you secure full-time job.
Gain knowledge and practical skills
Nowadays, having relevant qualifications, although essential, is only half of the equation. If an employer sees that you have the knowledge and the practical skills to fulfil their role, you’ll have a competitive advantage over someone who only knows the theory.
Get a taste of the industry
They're also a good way for you to get a taster of what it’s like to work in a specific area of work ("industry"). Because they are temporary arrangements, you’re not committing yourself to working with a company forever, which gives you the opportunity to refine what it is that you’re looking for from employment.
Meet influential people
By organising employment, you’ll also have the opportunity to build up a network of contacts who may be able to help you secure a job in the near future. If you show that you’re enthusiastic and can step up to challenges, you’ll also earn yourself some good references for future roles.
Potentially get an offer of work
In some cases, your placement will also lead to a full-time job – if there’s a position available with that company.
To summarise, the benefits include:
- Discovering your personal career goals.
- Gaining first-hand experience of an industry.
- Improving your knowledge and skills.
- Building up a network of contacts.
- Gaining good references for future opportunities.
For more information on the importance of work placements, take a look at this video from East Midlands Business Services, produced by the University of Derby:
What kind of work will I be doing during my employment?
The type of work that you’ll be assigned will vary depending on the role that you’re taking on. Unlike work experience, placements are for school and university students who are ready to enter into the workplace, so you’ll likely be performing similar tasks to full-time employees.
You may be assigned an entry-level role to help you learn the ropes of the job, or you may be given the chance to shadow a senior employee and assist them in their daily duties.
In some cases, you might be assigned your own role within the company that relates to the job that you’d like to end up doing. If this is the case, you’ll want to make a good impression as there could be a chance that you’ll be offered the job full-time afterwards.
Are work placements paid?
If you’ve applied for a voluntary placement, then the position is unlikely to be paid. However, one of the main differences between a placement and work experience is that in larger companies, you’ll normally be paid a salary.
If you’ve applied for employment as part of your university course, then you’re likely to be paid an annual salary of around £15,000 per year.
Every university course is different, so you’ll need to check with yours, whether or not you still need to pay your university fees during this time. Some universities offer employment allowances and if your placement is unpaid (but part of your degree) you might be offered a bursary to help you out.
How long does a work placement last?
If you’re looking for a work placement as a school leaver, most opportunities last from as little as one week to up to three months, with paid employment lasting a bit longer. Most companies that take school students on placements do so during the summer holidays, so six to eight weeks is about average for a school leaver’s placement.
If you’re a university student, then your employment is likely to last longer, typically between six months and one year. If your placement is an essential part of your degree (like in teaching or a Modern Foreign Language), then you’ll usually complete your employment between your two final years of study. This is sometimes called a "sandwich placement".
In most cases, you’ll be supported throughout your employment by your university, who will already have an established relationship with the employer.
How do I apply for a work placement?
If your placement is part of your degree course, then you might be allocated employment, in which case, you don’t need to apply. However, if you’re looking for employment as a school leaver, then you should apply in the same way you would for any job.
Make sure that you know when the deadline date for the applications is, so that you can take your time with your application. Be sure to read the job description thoroughly and tailor your application to the requirements of the description.
Where possible, you should try to back up your experience and skills with real-life examples to strengthen your application.
If you’re taking the initiative and enquiring about a work placement speculatively, then you should make sure that your CV and covering letter is tailored specifically to the company you’re contacting. For example, you might want to mention what you think you’ll gain from working with them by making reference to what you’ve been studying and why it’s relevant to their organisation.
For more practical advice on how to apply for a work placement, check out our post on how to get your first job.