students at work experience
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Employers are all too keen on their employees to have some form of work experience – or rather, they’re keen on what it gives them in the form of an employee: the confidence and practical skills you need to succeed in the workplace. Whether or not you’re planning to go to university, getting work experience while you are at school will do you well when it comes to getting hired. But here’s the thing- how much work experience is enough work experience?

You see, the job market is the toughest it has ever been as of right now and although we can blame the large majority of the lack of jobs on the COVID-19 situation, a lot of candidates might find themselves getting turned down due to the lack of experience in the relevant field. The employer’s decision can come down to the longevity of any previous work experience and even if they feel as though you have gained all the right skills. I personally found myself struggling to find a job in my field despite the fact that I had every relevant skill required for the role. A lot of the time, I even found myself getting rejected for roles on the basis that I had never had a paid role in the field which proved itself to be rather frustrating. A year after graduating from my master’s, I have finally landed myself a paid position, so I feel as though I’m in a relatively okay position to lend you some advice, right?

Well, here it is.

Work experience is much more important than what your secondary school would have implied it was. If you want to apply to a school leaver program, your work experience will portray you to be a stronger candidate; if you plan to get a degree, you can apply for internships and other placements to help you gain that competitive edge. It will also give you a better feel for what you do and don’t enjoy and the career choices you want to make.

Truth be told, the chance of you probably have done work experience arranged through your school and being hired on the basis of that is incredibly low. What employers tend to mean by the term can be broader than you might think. All sorts of activities can help to develop the qualities you need at work.

Here are some examples of the range of ways you can gain work experience:
  • Formal work experience placement: Often up to a week in a location arranged by your school or independently. Typically unpaid, this is an opportunity to learn about the world of work and see it in action.
  • School leaver careers fairs and employer events: A chance to meet either lots of employers in one go or a single employer, for example via an open evening at its offices.
  • Employer’s insight day or week for school leavers: Some organizations that run school leaver programs also offer you the chance to spend a day or more seeing for yourself what working there would be like and meeting employees who have joined straight from school. Professional services firms and IT employers commonly run insight weeks or days.
  • Extracurricular activities: Being part of a sports team or another club or group such as a theatre group or choir. Involvement in the Scouts or Guides, or Duke of Edinburgh award scheme.
  • Volunteering and fundraising: There are stacks of volunteering opportunities out there. You could walk dogs for an animal charity, volunteer as a retail assistant in a charity shop, help with outdoor conservation projects, collect funds or support young disabled people on activity days.
  • Competitions: Look out for competitions in areas that interest you, for example, design, writing, maths, or business.
  • Entrepreneurship: Perhaps you aspire to run your own business one day, or maybe you’ve got a commercial idea that you’re keen to get off the ground. Employers are keen to take on candidates with entrepreneurial flair, so it’s well worth honing your skills whether or not you go on to set up your own venture.
  • Part-time jobs: A part-time job such as working in a shop gives you customer service and time management skills and helps to develop your commercial awareness. Doing a paper round or babysitting calls for responsibility and resilience. Employers like evidence that you can be relied on to turn up when expected and stick at what you’re meant to be doing till you’ve seen it through.
  • Personal projects: If you’ve designed and made something under your own steam, such as a DIY or craft project, a website, or a blog, you may well have developed the problem-solving and creative skills that employers look for.
  • Positions of responsibility: Are you a head boy or head girl, a sports captain or house captain? Have you been a student representative, taking prospective pupils and parents on tours and speaking to them, or been involved in the school council? Have you had a leadership or committee role in a group or club? This kind of experience hones the communication and leadership skills employers want.

The best piece of advice I can offer, although entirely cliche, is to keep your chin up. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses; something all employers should recognise by this point in time. Although I can recommend gaining experience before dipping your toes into full-time employment, you’ll always find an employer who knows how to level with you and can understand your situatuion.