2 May 2011

Work experience

How to find work, and make your placement count.

Work experience

Work experience can be a great first step towards the job of your dreams. Here's our top tips for making your placement count: 

What sort of placement?

Take some time to think about what you really want to do with your life. You might know for absolute certainty that you want to be an astronaut, or you might have a vague idea that you want to work in a creative industry. 

It doesn't matter if your ideas aren't that set yet, but you need to chose a placement that's a step towards where you think you might want to end up. So don't pick working in a bank, if you know that you really want to be an undertaker. 

Where should I go? 

You need to be ambitious, but realistic. If you live in the Shetland Islands and you know the only place for you to start your career is a magazine office in London, it's not necessarily a problem, but you need to have a good plan as to how you're going to support yourself away from home. 

Some work experience placements will fund basic travel costs which should at least get you to your nearest city. 

Don't be ashamed to downsize your first placement. Starting off in a local business before trying for something national is still really valid, and a good way to learn the ropes and make contacts. 

I've got my shortlist, what now?

  • Get some perspective: Companies receive literally hundreds of requests for work experience every day. The chances of your CV ending up on a pile, or your email being deleted are really high, so everything that you do needs to make you stand out. 
  • Names: Find out the names of the relevant people in the company who sort work experience. You might need to phone them to find this out, or ask someone you know who works there. Some companies list a work experience contact, so google them and see what comes up.
  • Keep it short: Keep all contact short and to the point. Don't launch into the detailed history of your life up till the point you decided you wanted to work for this company. Introduce yourself, say what your looking for in terms of experience, and make it clear when you're available and how you can be contacted. 
  • Follow up: If you haven't heard from them within 10 days, phone them. If that company doesn't have any work experience placements, try the next one on your list, and so on.
  • Be polite: You might get frustrated if you're knocked back a lot, but never ever risk being rude or demanding. You don't have any footing yet, so you need to be polite but persistent. Save the moody emails for when you're CEO. 
  • Contacts: It is true what they say about it being "who you know" that'll get you ahead. Whilst skills and hard work should always come into account, contacts alert you to opportunities and can pick you out of the teeming pool of talent. Contacts can be made anywhere, at parties, at school, people who shop at your place of work… anywhere. So be polite and professional at all times, and make it clear to people what you want to do with your life, if they can help you at all, they will. 

When you get a placement?...

Don't panic. Ask a few quick questions about what's expected of you during the placement, your hours of work, what you're expected to wear and who you should report to on your first day.

On your first day of work experience?...

  • Dress smartly, but in line with the company dress policy. As a rule, business, finance, law, all that serious stuff, tend to dress quite formally, whereas media organisations are a bit more relaxed. 
  • If in doubt, don't wear trainers as they can be too casual.
  • Be on time or a little early.
  • Shake hands with your contact at the company, smile and be polite and helpful.
  • Don't sit about: If you've finished stuff you've been asked to do, see if there are other things you can help with. If in doubt, offer to make tea, it's a classic work experience skill… 
  • Make sure they remember you: When you leave send a polite email to people who've been helpful or who you have had direct contact with making it clear that you're interested in pursuing a career with the company and giving your contact details. 
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