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The value of work experience OU students talk about the value of work experience.
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1 min 09 sec

Rachael: I think work experience really is the best way of getting an understanding of a different career.

Paul: Anybody who's made the effort to find out something about the job that they want to do, by doing some voluntary work in that area, then I think that I would consider them, oh I don't know. a hundred times over before I would consider somebody who either hasn't or doesn't want to or hasn't made the effort.

Rachael: Part of my role is to organise for work experience students to come to our factory. The benefit for them is that they get to see as many different avenues within engineering as we can possibly show them, because within engineering you don't have to be grimy and dirty. There are the technical sides, there are the network sides, there is the CAD, computer aided design, and there are so many different avenues within engineering that are available to people.

Paul: I think it's critically important that people do take the advantage of finding out more about the work that they want to do by undertaking work in that area, before they've even taken a paid job in it.

What is work experience?

Work experience can involve work you do before you start your career or as part of enhancing your existing career. It can take several forms.

  • Work placement - a period of work experience, which can be paid or unpaid, that is part of your study
  • Internship – a short-term placement in an organisation
  • Work-based project – a specific set of assessed activities carried out on the employer’s premises
  • Work shadowing – observing a staff member at an organisation to understand the nature of their role and responsibilities
  • Voluntary work – unpaid work, usually carried out in your own time

The benefits of work experience

Undertaking work experience can help you to

  • develop a range of transferable skills
  • enhance your CV
  • gain useful contacts for networking
  • explore possible career options and make a positive career choice
  • pursue your personal and development goals
  • make a good impression on a prospective future employer.

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Finding opportunities for work experience

With imagination and planning it is possible to find useful opportunities for work experience. Consider these tips to aid your search.

Exploit existing opportunities at work

If you are already working, you may find you can volunteer or do work experience in a different role with your current employer – many have schemes for their employees and some may pay for employees to undertake work experience elsewhere. Check with your HR department to see if this is possible.

Consider work shadowing other members of staff whose roles appeal to you. You will get a more realistic idea of the responsibilities, skills and challenges of the posts.

Do some research

Work experience can be found in all sorts of organisations. Usually it takes the form of unpaid work, but you may find opportunities to gain paid work experience. Use the list of Useful websites to do some research. There is likely to be competition for work experience placements at the bigger, well-known organisations, so you need to plan ahead.

Attend careers and placements fairs to talk to employers directly about their work experience schemes, and try to talk to other students who have carried out a placement at the company.

Be prepared to work unpaid or in your spare time

If you want to teach, for example, it is important to spend time in the classroom before applying for teacher training. If you work full time you may have to use part of your annual leave to gain work experience in a local school. Contact schools in your area to see if you can arrange this.

Be creative but realistic

Organise work experience that suits you and your career plans. Your time is precious, so spend it wisely and constructively and be realistic about what you can take on.

Good employers will provide quality experience that will develop and support students and graduates. You should be able to carry out ‘real’ work and projects to help you enhance your employability and academic skills.

Useful resources

  • Law page on this website links to 'How to get into a legal career', a guide to gaining legal work experience (for OU students only) - Find under Further Resources.
  • Science page on this website links to a booklet on gaining Science Work Experience (for OU students only) - Find under Further Resources.
  • Psychology page on this website links to a 'Work experience for careers linked to Psychology' guide (for OU students only) - Find under Career Opportunities.
  • National Council for Work Experience promotes and supports quality work experience for students and organisations.
  • Shell Step is a project-based placement programme operating throughout the UK. It is open to undergraduates, graduates and businesses.
  • Knowledge Transfer Partnerships offers opportunities to gain experience and work towards a professional qualification.
  • Graduate Talent Pool is a government-sponsored site enabling 2008 and 2009 graduates to search for internships across the UK.
  • Graduate Advantage has information on full and part-time work placements and internships in the West Midlands.
  • Go Wales offers undergraduates and graduates training and work experience opportunities in Wales.
  • The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has an information leaflet Internships and the National Minimum Wage, which is relevant to those undertaking work experience or voluntary work.
  • Graduate Prospects has information on work experience, including useful contacts and resources plus advice on work experience for students with disabilities.

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Making the most of your work experience

  • Be clear about your aims or objectives in undertaking the placement and how they fit in with those of the employer or organisation.
  • Make sure you have a mentor or supervisor to contact if you need to.
  • Ask for feedback during or after completing your placement.
  • Be proactive and seize opportunities to make contacts and network.
  • Include work experience in CVs and job applications – don’t discount it because it wasn’t a formal scheme or may not be directly relevant to the job you are applying for.

AGCAS Scotland has created an online careers seminar for students Making your work experience count. It has three stages:

  • defining transferable skills and understanding their importance to employers
  • assessing your own transferable skills based on your work experience
  • identifying how to improve your skills profile.

All experiences count and are valuable and no one should push those aside. It really doesn't matter where that experience was gained. It's about what you learnt from it … don't devalue yourself. Recognise the importance of what you've done.

Head of Recruitment and Resourcing, KPMG

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How employers view work experience

Most employers look favourably on applicants who can show work experience that enhances their application. By demonstrating that you have already achieved a certain level of work-based competence, you are more likely to get the job you want. A degree on its own often isn’t enough. As well as indicating what organisation you worked in, it’s important to explain exactly what your responsibilities were, what you learned and what transferable skills you developed which could be applied to other work situations.

For more information, go to the Work Experience pages on the Prospects website. The Contacts and Resources section has links to different opportunities and organisations. You can also look at the Prospects Jobs and Courses digital magazine.

Insights from recruiters

We welcome career changers who completed their degree some years ago and have some work experience. The Fast Stream welcomes diversity, as life and work experience will enrich the Civil Service. Work experience is important, and is one of the things that will make you stand out above others.

Head of Marketing and Diversity, Civil Service Fast Stream

Work experience and vacation placements are often very difficult to secure and can often be difficult to commit to for someone who is studying whilst working full time. An alternative is to attend as many open evenings as you can. This can give you a good insight into a firm.

If you are a mature student, your extra experience will put you at an advantage to someone who has gone straight from school to university. Your commitment, ambition, and drive will be noted as long as you’re are prepared to talk about your choice/change of career path.

Trainee Recruitment Officer, Beachcroft LLP

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What employers say

The Open University is an ideal way of combining the experience in academia and also the experience at work and that can be a really good combination.

Graduate Recruitment Manager – CGI

If you plan to change jobs then some voluntary work or work experience on your CV will be useful to show commitment and enthusiasm for your new path. It shows you have tested the water and still wish to enter that career.

Marketing Manager and TEFL Trainer, Travellers Worldwide