How to get the most out of work experience

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Teacher showing student how to work sewing machine to help her get the most out of work experience

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Trying to get a job in a popular industry can be tough – you need work to get experience and experience to get work. Work experience could be the solution – the company gets free labour and you get a foot in the door and the chance to see if it’s the job for you.

Why should I get work experience?

Even if it’s not the career you want, finding work experience is something to add to your CV. It looks more impressive than your 25m swimming certificate and provides a better referee than your headteacher. You’ll also learn invaluable skills, such as teamwork and communication, that most jobs require.

If you show the right enthusiasm and determination, your placement could turn into an actual job with a salary. Graduate Prospects recently reported that 73% of employers who take on "workies" have, at some stage, recruited them as permanent staff, while 62% say it’s their main reason for taking on work experience candidates.

So, how exactly do I get work experience?

  • You can start by sending your CV and a covering letter by post or email and follow up with a telephone call.

  • Always address your mail and phone call to the right person – either to the department head or the personnel or human resources officer (ring the switchboard and ask). If the mail is addressed to no one, it’s likely no one will reply.

  • Take advantage of work experience programmes offered at your local school, college or universities.

  • Don’t be afraid of networking. It’s surprising how many friends and family will know someone who could offer you an opportunity.

  • Arrange work experience placements early, especially for more prestigious placements as they are often in great demand. Some, like those offered by the BBC, require you already to have some experience. Try approaching smaller, local firms first. Having gained experience with them you can aim higher.

Top tip: Use the work experience listing here on the Success at School site. You can filter by area of work and location.

Making the most of your work experience

Try to make the most of your work experience placement, even if it’s not your dream job. Dress well and be keen and polite, you can dress down later if everyone else does. Follow the social customs of the office and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Do valuable work

The company are doing you a favour, but you shouldn’t slog away for nothing. Work experience should be a learning experience. If it isn’t, it might be worth speaking up, as graduate Luke found on a placement at a TV company. “The first few days were great, then they moved me to doing repetitive, boring work – in a different building.”

After agonising over what to do, Luke asked to move back. “At first it seemed I’d made a mistake,” he says. “A manager told me off. But I explained it was costing me a lot of money to get there every day. Doing something that wouldn’t help my career in any way didn’t seem fair.”

Updating your CV

Afterwards, make a note of everything you have done and break it down on your CV, emphasising the various skills. If you have done actual work, try to describe it as work rather than work experience without resorting to lying.

Keep the names and contact details of anyone you meet and give them short updates on what you are up to if you do anything significant. They could prove to be useful contacts later.

What can go wrong during my work experience placement?

Work experience can be valuable, but things can go wrong. The National Council for Work Experience (NCWE) has found that 39% of businesses admit to taking on workies for specific projects, while 19% admit to using them to cover busy periods. To make the best of your work experience, try to avoid hiccups by making sure you're prepared:

  • Ask the company to explain exactly what the placement will involve.

  • Don’t end up out of pocket – establish what expenses the employer will cover and save tickets and receipts. Many pay for travel expenses, but lunch is more rare.

  • Know your rights. Ordinary labour laws cover those taking work experience over 16; under 16s get more stringent protection.

  • The NCWE has a code of practice, encouraging employers to maintain good safety standards, provide an educational opportunity and offer feedback.

Companies don’t have to pay you for your work placement although the NCWE encourages it, especially if you’re working for a long period, which is common in popular industries such as media. If you’re treated like any other staff member, rather than work-shadowing or being mentored, this could be seen as work you should be paid for.

Now you know how to get the most from your work experience, start looking for a placement! Check out our work experience listings here for current and future opportunities.

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