Work experience placements are not always easy to find, so if you get the opportunity, you should make the most out of it while you are on placement and when it comes to applying for jobs, courses or training programmes.
Let’s start by looking at the reasons why work experience can be so beneficial. This article will help you prepare for your placement, give you an idea of what to expect and provide you with advice to make it a success. It also explains how you can make the experience count in the future.
This article focuses on traditional work experience placements lasting up to two weeks, but much also applies to gaining experience in other ways, such as through part-time or holiday jobs, volunteering, internships or virtual experience.
8 reasons to do work experience
It provides a real employee experience
Although you may have read careers information and seen people working in various jobs when going about your daily life, actually spending time in the workplace gives you a better insight. You’ll see how things are organised and how people interact.
You will develop your knowledge and skills
Apart from learning some job-specific skills, you will also develop transferable skills (more on these later).
It’ll strengthen your applications
When applying for courses, apprenticeships or jobs in the future, it will be something to mention in your applications and to talk about in interviews.
It’ll improve your confidence
By putting yourself in a new environment, working alongside people of different ages and backgrounds, and in a position where you need to take responsibility, you’ll discover how you are able to cope in different situations. In turn, this will improve your confidence and broaden your life experience.
It’ll help you set career goals
Once you’ve spent time in a particular work environment you will be in a better position to decide whether or not it might suit you. If it does, great! If not, it’s better to know now rather than make a false start. It’ll also open up your eyes to other careers; you’re likely to come across people doing a range of jobs, some you may not have heard of before. Perhaps one of them might suit you?
Experience can be essential
Relevant experience is important – sometimes necessary – if you’re applying to train in careers such as medicine and healthcare, veterinary science, social work or competitive jobs in areas like the media or nature conservation. Learning providers and employers want to know that you’ve made an effort to find out about a career and that you’re fully committed.
You will be able to relate your studies to working life
This is particularly useful if you’re doing a work-related course, but you will also see how important it is to do well in other subjects such as English and maths.
You may even get a job offer and/or a reference
If you make a good impression, there’s a chance the employer will suggest you apply for any temporary or permanent jobs or training opportunities that may be available or become available. You will have an advantage over candidates who don’t know the organisation.
Preparing for your placement
It’s natural to feel apprehensive before going on placement. Being well prepared will help calm any nerves you may have.
When you applied for your placement, you may have done some research on the organisation, so refresh your memory. It’s useful to find out a little about the organisation’s history and structure, the goods or services it provides, what makes it different from its competitors etc. You should be able to find information on the employer’s website and their social media pages.
Sort out the practicalities.
- Find out where you need to go on the first day and plan how you will get there so that you arrive in plenty of time.
- Check who you need to report to.
- Think about what you will wear. If in doubt, it’s better to be smart; you can always dress more casually once you know the norm.
- Find out what hours you’ll be expected to work and what people normally do for lunch.
When on placement
- You will usually be allocated a member of staff who will oversee your placement. They may start you off with an introduction to key people and a tour around the premises. You should be given information on health and safety procedures.
- Set yourself some objectives. What in particular do you want to experience? There may be things you need to do or learn about for your coursework. Whatever it is, let the employer know.
- Introduce yourself to staff members you meet, but be aware that some people may be too busy to chat.
- Listen carefully to any instructions and take notes.
- If you’re not sure about something, ask for clarification. Rather than being a nuisance, this will show that you’re keen to get things right.
- If you don’t have enough work to do, ask if you can help out with something.
- Keep a note of everything you have done and learned each day so that you can refer back to this in the future and, with permission, keep examples of your work.
- If you experience any problems or have concerns, talk to your supervisor or the person who organised your placement. Do this sooner rather than later as most issues can be sorted out. You shouldn’t be put in any situation that risks your health, personal safety or security. Organised placements are checked, but if you arranged it yourself, don’t be afraid of challenging anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
- People don’t want to waste their time supporting someone who doesn’t seem to care. Show an interest in what’s going on – you’ll find that most people love talking about their jobs!
The experiences people have on placement vary enormously depending on the sector, individual employer and lots of other factors.
Many employers will produce a plan outlining what you will do and when, so you should have a rough idea what to expect. If there’s a task you want to add to this, do ask, especially if you need to do something for a vocational course you are doing.
Many of the tasks you will be given will be fairly routine, but no job is exciting all the time – there are always mundane elements. Without the necessary training or experience (and perhaps being a certain age or having a licence) and restrictions relating to personal care, security or confidentiality, there will always be things you cannot do. But you may get a chance to:
- Do some basic tasks, such as data entry or information gathering, or do some more involved work under supervision
- Undertake a specific project and present your results
- Attend meetings; you may not be able to contribute much, but you’ll learn quite a bit from the discussions and, if you do have suggestions of your own, make sure you speak up; the employer may be really interested in a fresh perspective
- Shadow somebody and ask them questions
- Teach employees something you know, whether that’s how to make the most of social media or how to target young people in their advertising.
Towards the end of your placement
Ask for feedback on how you’ve got on. It’ll be interesting to hear what they thought of you and you can learn about your strengths and weaknesses and what you need to work on.
If your placement went well, ask whether you can stay in touch. Find out whether there are likely to be any opportunities to work for them – you never know! You could also ask your placement supervisor whether they’d be willing to be your referee when you come to apply for jobs and courses in the future.
Review what you have learned about the work, the employer and yourself. What did you enjoy and what didn’t you like? What skills have you developed? What have been the challenges? How did you cope with these? Has the experience altered your career aspirations or firmed up your career goal?
After your placement
One of the most valuable things about going on work experience is that you will develop your transferable skills – these are the skills needed in all sorts of jobs. They include being able to communicate with others (colleagues, suppliers, customers etc), and the ability to manage your time, organise your workload, follow instructions, solve problems and work in a team. Doing work experience also demonstrates that you are reliable, responsible and have the initiative to find an opportunity to develop yourself; this can call for persistence, networking and hard work. Make sure you make learning providers and employers aware of these skills and qualities.
When mentioning your work experience on your CV or application, give some examples of tasks you performed and the skills these demonstrate. Here’s a very brief example, but you would need to relate what you did on placement to the requirements of the opportunity for which you are applying.
During my placement I spent time working on reception greeting visitors and putting telephone callers through to the right department. This developed my confidence and verbal communication skills. I also worked alongside two members of staff preparing PowerPoint presentations and training documents for a senior manager. We worked well within a small team, agreeing who should do what and making sure that we completed these tasks in plenty of time.
For more information and advice on work experience, either contact your national careers service or find information online through the National Careers Service for England, Careers Wales, My World of Work if you’re in Scotland or the Careers Service for Northern Ireland.
Doing a work experience placement can be a really positive experience and have a big impact on your career decisions. Your first foray into the world of work is certainly something that you will not forget. But remember, it’s not just the experience itself that’s valuable, it’s how you present it in your future applications. Make the most of it and don’t forget to thank the employer for the opportunity!
Debbie Steel, Updated August 2023
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.