Careers experts and students weigh in...
Whether you're at school, college, university or somewhere in between, work experience is a valuable use of your time.
As well as working towards your GCSEs, A-level or degree, finding a placement or job in a relevant (or not-so-relevant) field can open your eyes to the world of work.
We asked the TSR community and experts from IBM, RAF and National Careers Service for their thoughts on the best things you can get out of work experience – and there's lots of handy advice thrown in about how to secure it, too.
1. It gives you food for thought
In my Year 12 summer holiday, I did a Nuffield Research Placement which got me really thinking about going into scientific research. Would highly recommend this to you guys!
2. ...and lets you explore your options
In Year 12, I did a Deloitte workshop thing for five days and it was really interesting getting to understand the business sector should I wish to pursue something different to engineering.
Obviously I would definitely recommend doing the Nuffield Summer Placement if you can, or just apply to LOADS and I mean LOADS of places. It’s better for you to have the power to choose where you want to do your work experience than having none at all. Get researching, emailing, talking on the phone, networking, asking a teacher!
3. You can gain transferable skills in practically any workplace
My work experience at school was so diverse.... during my GCSEs I helped at a beauty salon, during Year 13 I shadowed a Labour whip and spent time at the local office in Hove and then Westminster. This clearly demonstrates I had no idea what I wanted to do. But both were really helpful experiences.
The first experience showed me that this was not what I wanted to do in the future. The second experience played to my interests in politics.
Not everyone knows what they want to be when they grow up... I certainly still don't. But I would recommend following your curiosity and have as many experiences as you can to build skills in team work, leadership, learn to use your initiative, problem-solving and creating a positive, can-do attitude.
A lot of my experience came from my involvement in societies and groups during my time at university alongside working in a bar and working in retail for six years while I studied.
Obviously some sectors do like more focused-work experience but I think having the opportunity to develop transferable skills elsewhere is just as important personally.
4. It looks good when applying for future jobs and graduate schemes
At IBM we don't require early professionals to have any work experience, but of course it always helps when filling in your application form! I'm currently a university placement student here and I completed my first work experience in Year 10 at a primary school, and since then I have worked in retail and customer services – although these have nothing to do with tech or business!
However, I can use skills such as teamwork, communication and client focus in my current marketing role! I have also completed some charity and volunteering work which I have discussed in previous applications e.g. Race For Life.
I would say start as early as you can, but potentially just look into charity work or part-time jobs when you're at college/sixth form. You will always develop skills that are replicable in the work place, regardless of the role.
Melissa, IBM UK Careers
5. It can prepare you for working in a specific working environment
Gaining work experience for the RAF can be tricky, depending on which role you wish to eventually apply for. Some roles and areas on certain stations are, obviously, out of bounds to civilian personnel, so getting some experience of being in the Intelligence or certain technical aspects some of our aircraft technician roles, for example, are impossible.
However, you can get experience of what life on station is like and there are some roles that you'll be able to do. Because of the security implications each station handles enquiries for work experience directly. You can contact your local station (or a specific one if there's a role there you wish to do, but again, it may not be possible) and the team on each station will look into what opportunities are available. You can find contact details for each station on the main RAF website.
You don't need to have any previous experience of an RAF station to be able to apply, but knowledge of the RAF is very useful as part of the application process.
6. It gets you out of your comfort zone
Lots of students feel like they struggle to find work experience which is specific enough for the type of career they want to get into in the future – for example, medical experience can be difficult to find if you are looking to become doctor or nurse in the future!
However, most employers are aware of these difficulties and understand that it’s not always easy to find the most relevant experience – which is why a lot of employers are perfectly happy for you to present with some form of work experience instead.
Obviously, finding something specifically related to your interest will always be preferable, but work experience isn’t only about practising the exact role you want to do in the future – it’s also so you can experience something outside of your school environment which is likely the only experience you’ve had so far.
The working world is different to school life, not scary different, but different enough that it’s certainly worth having an idea of what it’s like before you apply for jobs in the future. If an employer knows you have been in this environment in the past, they know you are more likely to have a better understand of what is expected from employees in general and you will likely be a more attractive candidate due to this.
Many companies no not actively advertise work experience as it can be a little expensive to do so, and they rely on students contacting them directly to ask if they have any work experience or volunteering positions available. The worst thing you’re going to hear if you get in touch is that they don’t have anything now and in which case, you’re no worse off that if you hadn’t asked.
When you gain work experience in whatever role or industry, the best way to make the most of it is to do as much as you can! Whatever task is available or whatever new job they suggest, I would recommend to take it as the point of work experience is to build your skills in as many areas as possible. You can also put yourself forward for roles as well, perhaps ask your manager or supervisor if there is anything extra you can try while you are there to see if you can find new interests.
National Careers Service
7. In some fields of work, experience is essential
When I was doing my undergrad I did voluntary work experience at a hospice. They thought it was really unusual as they only really got applications for work experience from students pre-uni, so weren't sure how to deal with my application. I actually got a much better experience because I had experience through my degree so could be much more hands-on than a school/college student. I was also able to see much more sensitive situations.
It was very relevant to my course (nursing) and career ambitions at the time. I didn't have the opportunity to have a placement in a hospice as part of my nursing training, so for me, it was a necessary step in order to fill the gap in my experience.
I think it was instrumental in me landing a job in a hospice upon qualifying – it demonstrated that I had a real interest in the area. Most hospice nurse roles are only open to nurses with post-qualification experience.
8. It grows your confidence
My daughter did voluntary work experience at uni at the local Citizens Advice Bureau as she thought it would help her law applications as it is considered relevant work experience for law. It was worthwhile and although she ended up going into a different career, we would still recommend it to other people as the training was good and gave her confidence in talking to people which is important for lots of careers.
9. You can learn valuable life lessons
I worked in a creperie. Not at all relevant to my degree (biochem) but I enjoyed it. It got me out of my biochem/uni bubble, gave me some pocket money, taught me to manage my time well and to communicate with difficult people. Also taught me to stand up for myself as my boss was a real idiot and a bit of a bully.
I did a year in industry (a pharma company). Very relevant to my degree and I enjoyed it immensely. Really helped with my PhD applications and gave me some invaluable lab experience. It taught me to be independent as my supervisor was away on a sabbatical and I was able to design my own final year project based on it. It also showed me that industry was not for me.
I also worked as a student ambassador. Not overly relevant to my degree but I enjoyed it as well. Helped me to develop an interest in outreach and teaching which I carry until today. It strengthened my communication skills, taught me a lot about how unis and UCAS works and I worked my way up to student lead for open days in my dept which allowed me to attend and get involved with some high level meetings and discussions to do with students.
10. It prepares you for competitive industries
I worked as a finance assistant for my uni's finance department for around four to five months. I am currently working as a project lead for the sustainability department, managing student led projects around the uni.
I do maths so none of my experiences were relevant to my course, but my experiences built all the soft skills and some important ones such as Excel that are needed to work in finance (which I aspire to work in).
Having any positions of responsibility during your undergraduate studies is a huge plus, because graduate jobs are competitive and majority of candidates applying for the same spot as you will also have relevant experiences (through summer internships mostly).
Another benefit is that it'll boost your confidence, and also learn a lot of things related to your career and sector (which a degree doesn't necessarily teach you).
11. It can open doors to unexpected opportunites
I agree that it's really hard to get relevant experience for some jobs. My first (very short!) career was in medical research and I didn't get any experience in that until I was in my third year at university, so my first bit of advice would be don't panic if you can't get something that exactly matches your career ambition. No experience is ever wasted!
I think one of the best ways to acquire work experience is through volunteering. Not everyone is able to commit to a part time job when they are studying, but voluntary work still counts as work experience! It's less about the work you've done, and more about the transferable skills you gain, such as communication and people skills.
It's never too early to start thinking about work experience. I did my first work experience placement in Year 10 for a couple of weeks, and then had a couple of part time jobs in retail when I was in college. None of them were remotely related to working for the civil service, and that really didn't matter when I came to apply. After college, whether you decide to go to uni or straight into work, internships are often great ways to get really relevant work experience to specific sectors. The civil service offers two internship programmes for undergraduates for one week (EDIP) and six to nine weeks (SDIP), which are worth exploring!
The best tip I could give for making the most out of your work experience would be to talk to as many people in your placement as you can! Your colleagues will have loads of amazing tips, and may even know of other opportunities that you could explore while you're there. Be open-minded – you never know what you might learn!
Civil Service Fast Stream