This article explains how you can go about getting work experience and gives you some ideas for alternatives if placements are hard to find.
People can benefit from work experience at any age but, in this article, we mainly focus on those who are at school or college looking to gain some initial experience of work. Much of the information will also be relevant to university students, graduates and job seekers generally.
What do we mean by work experience?
All sorts of interactions with employers can be valuable, but traditionally work experience is a period of time – perhaps up to two weeks – actually spent in the workplace. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to be paid, but some employers or work experience schemes provide allowances and/or cover your expenses.
Work experience placements obviously vary enormously. Some are clearly structured whereas others are less formal. You should get the chance to work with other people, have a go at certain routine tasks or projects, and get the opportunity to observe people and ask questions.
How to go about finding work experience
Think about what sort of work might suit you
You don’t need a definite career plan, but it’s helpful if you can gain experience in a career that interests you. If, for whatever reason, you can’t find a placement in the particular career you’d like to explore, time spent in the same sort of working environment can be valuable, whether that’s a hospital, airport, office, workshop or primary school. It’ll certainly give you the chance to decide whether it’s the sort of setting you’d like to work in and you may get to observe people working in various roles, some of which you may not have considered before.
Find out whether your school/college organises placements
If so, make sure you speak to the work experience coordinator and find out what is available. They may have a list of employers who regularly take students. If you’re doing a work-related course, such as a T level, work experience is an essential part of the programme.
Look for advertised work experience placements
You may find opportunities on the websites and social media pages of large employers or through websites like Student Ladder. There are also work experience initiatives – such as Nuffield Research Placements and In2scienceUK – run by professional bodies, charities and other organisations.
If you’re interested in an advertised opportunity, make sure that you meet any eligibility criteria; placements may be aimed at students of a certain age, those who are studying particular subjects and/or who come from under-represented groups. They may expect certain commitments from you in return, so check what these may be. Competition for places can be fierce, so you would need to put in a good application and apply before the deadline.
Find your own work experience
Many students every year find their own placements. You’ll have to use your networks, and be professional, persuasive and persistent. Here are some tips…
- Spread your net wide! Ask your family, friends, fellow students and neighbours to let you know if they are aware of suitable employers who may be willing to offer you a placement.
- Investigate suitable local employers unless, of course, you’re prepared to relocate for a week or two; you may be able to stay with a relative or friend who lives in an area where there’s the perfect opportunity.
- Once you have a list of organisations you could approach, find out more about them by looking on their websites and social media pages.
- Knock on doors. OK, not necessarily literally – although introducing yourself in person is a possibility in some cases. If you get the chance to go to a careers fair, there may be employers there you can ask about work experience.
- Whether introducing yourself to an employer in person, over the phone, by emailing or writing, it’s important to come across as enthusiastic. Explain who you are, what stage you are at in your studies/career, what you’re currently doing, the kind of work you’re interested in and why, what qualities and skills you have to offer and when you are available. Prepare a CV with an accompanying letter or email covering all these points. Make sure you get someone to check through your CV – sloppy spelling, grammar and presentation will not impress.
- A personal application is always best, so try to find out the name of the most suitable person in the organisation to approach. If you can’t find a named person, address your letter or email to the human resources or recruitment team.
What if I can’t find a placement?
There are all sorts of reasons why you might not be able to find work experience. There may be limited opportunities in your area and/or a lot of competition for placements. Also, for health and safety, personal or ethical reasons, placements may not be feasible. There are sometimes laws and regulations that prevent someone under the age of perhaps 16 or 18 from doing certain tasks, or you may need a licence and proper training for some jobs; think of careers where you operate dangerous machinery, drive vehicles, provide personal care, serve alcohol or have to respect confidentiality.
All is not lost. There are alternative ways to gain experience, develop your skills and acquire an insight into a career – just some of these are outlined below. If work experience is essential for what you want to do, check whether any of the following would be acceptable alternatives.
Do virtual work experience
Since the restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic, this has become a recognised way of linking with employers. The format and degree of interaction you will have with employers varies widely, so investigate carefully. You may find opportunities directly through employers or via organisations such as Speakers for Schools, Future First or Springpod.
Shadow someone doing their job
You may not get to do any hands-on tasks, but you will be able to observe them going about their daily tasks, and you can ask them questions about their career and entry route.
Get paid part-time or holiday work
You may be able to fit this around your studies or other commitments. Even if it isn’t related to a career that interests you, you will develop transferable skills, such as your ability to communicate, provide customer service, work in a team and organise your workload.
Opportunities are readily available in areas such as social care, nature conservation and the performing arts. There are all sorts of things you can do, from raising funds to digital marketing, and from taking part in an archaeological dig to shopping for someone who is housebound. Apart from the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile, you’ll gain experience and develop your skills and confidence. Your local volunteer centre or do-it are good places to start looking for opportunities.
Interview someone about their career
This involves finding someone in a role that interests you and asking whether they’d be prepared for you to ask them a series of questions so that you can find out about their career journey, their training, what they enjoy, the challenges they face and so on.
Take part in a competition
These are run in certain industries through professional bodies and other organisations. Examples include competitions where you design packaging, write stories or take part in a cyber security challenge. You would get a chance to demonstrate your skills and may even win a prize!
Do an insight/taster programme
These will give you an idea of what to expect from a particular course or career. You may get the opportunity to network with students, staff and employees. Make sure you apply early as there might be a lot of competition for the places available.
Find out more
For more information and advice on work experience, contact your national careers service; you can also find information through their websites:
- The National Careers Service for England
- Careers Wales
- My World of Work in Scotland
- Careers Service for Northern Ireland
Information for undergraduates and graduates on work experience can be found through the Prospects website.
Some last words of advice…
- Make sure you plan ahead. It can take quite a while to apply for work experience and advertised opportunities often have early deadlines.
- If an employer can only offer you a placement during term time, make sure that you get permission from your school or college.
- Even if you’ve put in good applications, be prepared for some rejections and don’t take these too personally. Providing placements can be a big commitment for an employer and some are inundated with requests.
- It’s often useful to gain a range of experience in different settings and in different ways. Make sure you not only explore the possibility of doing a placement, but also some of the alternatives outlined in this article.
- When seeking work experience opportunities, treat the whole process as if you were applying for a job. A few well-targeted, professional applications are usually better than lots of mediocre ones.
Finally, it’s not just getting the work experience that matters, it’s also how you present it when it comes to applying for courses, training and jobs. Make sure you make the most of it!
Debbie Steel, Updated July 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.