What work experience should I aim for?

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The Independent Online

Definitions of work experience can be broad and varied. Many will be familiar with the two-week period of statutory work experience in which students in Years 10-11 must participate. In essence, it is any form of work that leads to experience from which one can learn. This can include part-time casual work, full-time work and volunteering. Work experience can be short term or long term and could be paid or unpaid. Types of work experience include:

Career-related work experience

A type of activity through which participants gain employment experience and skills related to their field of studies or employment goals

Internship

A placement within a company, usually over six to 12 weeks during the summer vacation

Part-time work

Paid or unpaid work for less than 35 hours per week

Sandwich placements

Assessed paid work which is part of an academic or accredited course, often of one year's duration

Work-based project

A specific piece of assessed work for a course, undertaken at an employer's premises

Work placement

A period of work experience, which can be paid or unpaid, and is part of a course of study. This can be arranged through the university with an employer or by the participant

Work shadowing

An individual observes a member of staff working in an organisation

Voluntary work

Any type of work undertaken for no payment, usually outside of an academic course and during spare time

Learning can be gained from any type of work experience, even if the job seems irrelevant to that person's career development path at the time. For example, around 40 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds have part-time paid jobs while in full-time education, but many will simply see this as a way to earn money. However, many of these jobs will require young people to develop skills that they may not have the chance to develop in an academic setting. Restaurant and retail work are good examples, as they both require young people to provide a level of customer service; it's not often that you get to practise that skill while revising for finals. Across the board, there are opportunities to practise skills such as team-working, critical thinking and communication, all of which are incredibly valuable to future employers.

Formal work experience placements, such as internships with major employers, will have a clear programme of learning attached to them, so the intern will have some initial training. They will have opportunities to get feedback from the employer. Then, at the end of the programme, time spent reflecting upon what has been gained from the placement can give the participants a valuable opportunity to understand how to articulate what they've learnt to future employers. The best placements will offer some form of recognition of learning, such as formal accreditation. Volunteering programmes or unpaid placements can also provide this kind of structured learning.

If a student organises their own placement or is taking a casual job, the same principles can still be followed. Ideally, they will spend some time thinking about what they hope to gain from the experience. They should think about what they are learning while they undertaking the placement, and reflect on what they have gained beyond it.

Those on work experience should remember:

* It doesn't matter what you are doing, there are opportunities to learn key skills in all types of work experience

* Treat it seriously - it can have a positive and significant impact (maybe in unexpected ways!) on your career development

* Many recruiters of graduates are very supportive of gap years, but they want to know what you have learnt from the experience, not just what you did

* Reflect on what you've learnt. In the future, you want to be able to talk in interviews about past experiences of work, and how what you have learnt from them is transferable

Shaharazad Abuel-Ealeh is head of policy development, The Career Development Organisation

WEB WATCH

Prospects

General information on work experience www.prospects.ac.uk/cms/ShowPage/Home_page/Work_experience/p!eigaLjd

National Council for Work Experience

Practical tips for work experience for 15- to 28-year-olds

www.work-experience.org

Year in Industry

Formal placements for gap year students with major employers www.yini.org.uk

The Trident Trust

Organises work experience placements for 15- to 24-year-olds www.thetridenttrust.org.uk

The European Framework for Work Experience

Free resources for students and employers on getting the most out of work experience

www.efwe.org

Vinspired

A national organisation that supports volunteering opportunities

www.vinspired.com

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