Getting the best from work experience

Why is it important?

In a survey of top employers conducted by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, structured work experience was deemed to be the most effective way of selecting graduate recruits. And if you’re looking to get into or get on in HR, a work placement is a good start.

As well as providing valuable work experience that will enhance your employability, undertaking a work placement will also enable you to road-test a job and to discover what skills a future employer would expect. They are also a requirement of many Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development accredited courses.

“All jobs require certain skills and/or qualifications. Work placements help employers and potential employees to assess strengths and identify any training and development needs, setting the individual on the path to the job they really want,” explains Ben Knight, sector general manager for business, IT and employment skills at City & Guilds.

Where do I start?

Finding a worthwhile placement can be as big a challenge as finding a job so it is advisable to begin your search early, and research the organisation and its sector before making a formal approach. Use the corporate website, company literature and industry publications to find out everything you can about the organisation from its dress code, culture and HR practices through to practical considerations like the skills needed to perform the job in question.

Set clear objectives

Determine what you want to achieve from the placement and discuss expectations with the employer before you start. If both you and the employer are to benefit, the employer should also have a view about what your role and contribution should be during the programme. The surest way to avoid confusion or grey areas is to ask the employer to come up with a job description.

“Any work placement should begin with a frank discussion between the employer and the individual, where both sides talk openly about what they expect to get out of the experience,” says Knight. “It is essential that the employer is prepared to give participants tasks that will actually develop their skills. Simply answering the phone and photocopying may be representative of HR office life, but will do nothing to recommend the profession to jobseekers.”

Show what you can do

Create your own agenda by seizing every opportunity to gain added experience, stretch your abilities and take on increased responsibility.

Don’t be wary of asking questions or making suggestions. Feedback is also important when assessing your suitability for a role, so quiz your manager and colleagues to learn more about your input and potential.

Keep a learning log

A central aspect of any work placement is to allot adequate time to record and reflect on the different work activities undertaken and the challenges you have encountered along the way.

Detailing these experiences and how you dealt with them in a diary or workbook will help you to understand them thoroughly, and will also serve as a handy reference when potential future employers request evidence of your learning.

Before leaving

Be sure to ask for an employment reference. Knight also suggests that you request a full debriefing with the employer as this will help to identify the competencies you have gained, and the skills and qualifications required to pursue the career of your choice.

If you only do 5 things

  1. Be clear about what you want to get from the placement
  2. Begin your search for a placement in good time
  3. Research the organisation and sector thoroughly
  4. Record and reflect on your experiences
  5. Request a full debriefing from the employer

For more info

Work Placements: A Survival Guide for Students
Christine Fanthome, Palgrave Macmillan, £11.99, ISBN 1403934347

City & Guilds

National Council for Work Experience

Changing places
Work experience outside HR

Expert’s view getting the best from work experience

What steps should you take to make the most of a work placement?

A work placement is a genuine opportunity to make contacts and take steps towards a new career, so take it seriously. Individuals must be proactive and grab hold of opportunities with both hands. Also, employers must be prepared to trust those taking part in the placement. Their investment will only be worthwhile if they allow the individual to make a useful contribution.

What will be the most challenging aspects of a work placement?

It is crucial to manage expectations to avoid disappointment. However spectacular the candidate, it is unlikely they will have all the competencies required for a particular job, and individuals need to be prepared to recognise the skills they lack, and to take action to remedy the situation. Employers also need to be willing to bring candidates up to speed and offer whatever training and development they can.

What are the common mistakes made on a work placement?

Lack of planning – by the individual and the employer. Employers, in particular, need to realise that placements are a chance to advertise their organisation or profession and attract talented individuals. It is in their interest to provide individuals with appropriate training and experience to whet their appetites, and encourage them to pursue the profession for real. The individual, in turn, must ask for the help they need, giving the employer every opportunity to respond.

Top three tips:

  • Be serious – placements not only offer individuals the chance to network, they offer employers the chance to advertise their profession and attract new talent.
  • Be proactive – employees must use the placement to develop their skills and make them more marketable. Employers must give them the opportunity and freedom to do it.
  • Be real – be open and honest, and go into it with your eyes open.

Ben Knight is sector general manager for business, IT and employment skills, City & Guilds

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