/ Money, Parenting

Where does the value lie in work experience?

Work experience

As students, we’re told that work experience is expected of us upon graduating, but how can we ensure those experiences are worthwhile?

I sit writing this, at the beginning of my month-long placement at Which?, where I aim to gain invaluable experience in the industry I want to go into now that I’ve graduated. Coincidentally, it’s also nearly seven years to the day since I successfully interviewed for my first ever part-time job.

When I was 15, I didn’t immediately recognise the value in spending my Saturdays selling greetings cards and scented candles (beyond the £30 that lined my pockets at the end of each shift, of course).

However, one job led to another, and by the time I went to university, I had a solid three years of customer service experience under my belt.

And now, here I am, graduated and working in an office in London, where I’ve swapped my midnight cans of Red Bull for 9am coffee runs, and my XL university hoodie for a pair of floral-patterned slacks that scream: ‘I have an actual grown-up job!’

Would I be sitting here if it weren’t for all the time spent in part-time work, volunteering, or other CV-boosting pursuits? Probably not. To the surprise of no one, employers value the time spent gaining work experience over the grades we graduate with.

But I do wonder how much of that time is considered valuable or relevant by employers, or what I could have done differently.

Working world

University is a balancing act of short-term and long-term planning, and work experience falls somewhere precariously between the two. We need to work because our student loans rarely stretch far enough to cover the cost of living, yet we’re also desperately aware that graduating without work experience is as good as not graduating at all.

While I would have loved to have spent my afternoons in an office learning about working in the media, it was serving burgers in my student union that was going to pay my bills.

However, through finding time to get involved in relevant extracurriculars and learning to really big-up the transferable skills I gained through my part-time work, I’ve found myself in a relatively comfortable position in the post-graduation void.

There will always be more that I could have done; more hours, more relevant experience, more money saved than spent that could have allowed me to temporarily work unpaid in a field I ultimately want to end up working in.

But when I think of where I started out at, and where I am now, I realise the value lies not necessarily in where I gained my work experience, but what I learned from it. 

Did you do a work experience placement at school or university or even after you’d graduated? What did you do and what did you learn from it? Or, if you’re currently at university, or you’re going this autumn, where do you gain, or plan to gain, experience of the working world?


You can not be sure! Pick a reputable company.

Before university I worked on a building site and on the railways at different times. During university I sold ice cream, worked in a power station. I took a job relevant to my degree on graduating, but the experience those four jobs gave me mixing with people in the real world and seeing how employers operated was invaluable.

The one thing that took me time to conquer was using the telephone (we never had one at home so used one very irregularly). I would think hard about what I was going to say before I picked up the phone. It took quite a while to use it more naturally.

I’m 24 and in my second full-time job. I’ve worked since I was 15, constantly in retail – even in my final year at university. I was doing a degree, editing a magazine, freelancing, and working part-time. Somehow I passed with a great degree, probably not with my sanity intact. To achieve in my job as a writer, I’ve had to spend less time at home watching BBC iPlayer, or gossiping with friends over cocktails. I’ve had to work non-stop. I did an internship (for free) for 4 weeks. I had to claim jobseekers allowance, and constantly battle to be accepted into my industry. To become a writer I had to fork out £5k for a course, and move cities thrice. To take time out would have been unacceptable, and impossible. Not to mention detrimental to my career or future. Work experience has been invaluable to get me where I am, but even in my dream job at 24 – I’m still freelancing and working for free ‘for the future’. But everyday I wake up happy, despite the overhanging dread of £30k+ in loans – surely that’s all that matters?

I did not do a placement at university but made good use of the long vacation. Thanks to a friend of my father I was offered a place working with a small specialist company and had the opportunity to repair and use specialist scientific equipment. It was not only very rewarding but gave me my first opportunity to work in a very different environment from my university. The downside was that I had to stop what I was doing and go home at 5pm prompt every day, even if I was in the middle of a job. It convinced me that I should look aim for a job that offered more flexibility. For my efforts, I was paid £5 a week. The next two vacation jobs I had to compete for. They were respectably paid and more relevant to my subsequent career in research.

When interviewing, I have taken an interest in what students have done before university, during the vacations etc. Working behind a bar or in a supermarket are easy options and help in development of interpersonal skills, time management, and so on, but better candidates often find more challenging and useful temporary work. It’s worth exploring to find out whether this was good fortune or the result of their determination. In the past I have seen students who have done worthwhile unpaid vacation work but with most students now living in debt, this might no longer be a valid approach, however valuable it can be on a CV. Work placements or how you spent the vacations makes for interesting discussion in an interview, or should do.

Lauren says:
22 August 2017

Unfortunately, for many students taking on relevant summer work would mean giving up a steady term time job. More students seem to be staying in their uni cities over summer to work because they can’t afford to look for a new part time job every year! I’ve been able to apply most of what I learned in retail to my first graduate job, and still think it taught me things uni couldn’t have.

Well said! Almost all work is an invaluable learning experience, both the good and the bad.

From an employer’s perspective, we love to see work experience on CVs, because hiring new employees can be a risky business and solid evidence of work experience helps to avoid worries about individuals not being able to “get stuck in” and get things done.

In technical fields, like engineering and science, we also tend to look for good A level and university grades, because not everything we do is simple and easy to understand and evidence of exam successes tends to correlate with the ability to learn new (role specific) knowledge and skills.

We also interview potential new recruits – but usually only if their CVs are good enough to merit further consideration. Also, increasing use seems to be made of aptitude tests and “assessment centers”, to check that individuals have all the right initial skills (e.g. written and oral comprehension plus numeracy) and the ability to work as team members within business units. As regards the latter, it is alway good to see CVs that refer to participation in “clubs & societies” because most employers are looking for individuals with both personal & team skills.

I agree with these points. It’s worth exploring some of the claims made on CVs. For example if a candidate says they are a good team player (not uncommon on CVs), ask them to provide a couple of examples.

I value your comments Derek but I have found a lot of employers want so much for such a low salary . If you truly focus on Uni then a 1st for most is very hard work so to be members of clubs and also work is very stressful . My son got interviews by picking the right Uni modules which taught him the skills for an entry level position .Cleverly focusing on a very personal CV which illustrates you actually want the job rather than what you have done with the local Brownie pack has worked for him . The team player role play at some interviews has got rather silly – agreed on aptitude tests but most intelligent folk can put on an act .Just wait until you employ them !

Where I work now we are actually very choosy. The nature of our business demands that we need good team players – but we really want the best of both worlds – i.e. good team players who will nonetheless make their own unique contributions to our work.

I also agree that a lot of employers expect an awful lot for their money. I work in a niche field where “there is a shortage of engineers” but actually my personal take on is that is it only “a shortage of money” – if higher salaries were paid, then more staff could be attracted to the work and there would be no staff shortage.

“Passionate” is always worth a sceptical look.
Apart from competence, the main problem i and others have seen in employing people is “attitude”. Do they care about the quality of their work, learn from and care about mistakes, go the extra mile, rise to a challenge, address a crisis or a difficult deadline by putting in the extra effort needed? Or are they 9-5ers who think they are entitled to a job? Something you may not discover for 6-12 months, once the honeymoon period is over.

As work forms a very large part of your life, best to enjoy what you do and get real job satisfaction which your own attitude and efforts can help.

Personally, I’m a big fan of “three month long job interviews”, otherwise known as “summer placements” or “industry sponsored masters degree thesis projects”.

This year I’ve been really greedy and selfish, so I’m actually running two such projects.

These placements offer a great opportunity for staff in industry and university to get to know each other and may lead to future collaboration and if all goes well, the possibility of a job at the end. The next step could be to fund a PhD studentship, which is more risky but potentially much more useful. I would expect most universities to register the student for an MSc in the first instance and then transfer their registration to PhD students after around a year. Industrial collaborators are usually keen on regular progress reports, which is a good way of promoting good record keeping and self-evaluation. If a student does not deliver then their academic supervisor should suggest that should write up a for an MSc, but there is no point in wasting time and money on a poor student. Some are not cut out for this sort of work, even if they did very well in their first degree.

I’ve seen both sides of the fence, neither myself or the people I employed went to uni….but
I worked on a farm while at school, plus I worked on wedding catering as well and I did a paper round.
When I became a warehouse manager I was forced to use Maggies YOP scheme kids.
They were rough around the edges, thought someone owed them a living and had problems with attendance, one thought he could be late every day, then I found he lived on my route into work, I picked him up.
On their first day I would tell them that “if you are still here within a year I would sack them.”
I followed the statement with; “because you are too good for this job, don’t think I don’t know all the ways to sack people, I’m management and closed shop union trained there is always a way to sack you”.
I was lucky, I only had to sack one, very reluctantly, he had to go after three warnings for attendance.
Years later after giving all of them a glowing reference and an education in work politics I had grown men stopping me in the street thanking me for being their first boss, they told me they had learned a lot and I was the best boss they had ever had.

I was an au-pair in Dublin one summer, decades ago. Utterly irrelevant at first glance to what I do now (it never should be all about work, though, should it?), but invaluable from a personal development point of view. Still has an effect on me, on top of the memories, maybe one of the things that make me get on with people generally and enjoy it. Luck or likelihood, I never met a Dubliner who wasn’t welcoming and convivial. Pubs (at the bar) great places to chat and meet people. Translate that into the work place and you get folks to do things for you easily, and you want to help them too. You get what you put in.

The best work experience we have found is to take a degree which offers Year 3 as a year in industry .My son applied for about 30 posts and got 5 interviews with 3 job offers . He works full time, finishing in Sept 2018 and earns a respectable over min wage salary . The firm are keen for him to finish his final Uni year and give most interns a job with them with incentives for getting a 1st .

Sandwich courses seemed, from the students point of view, a good way to learn and experience the working world you might end up living in. A blend of theory and real practice. I don’t know if they still offer these, but it would seem an expense for industry to look after fairly unproductive staff in between their academic endeavours. My sons did day release (and evenings) at college while they worked productively at jobs. This seems a good way, if a little lengthy, to earn your keep, earn qualifications, and to help decide whether you are in a field of work you will like as an initial career.

Bosses of many businesses used to come up through the ranks the knew the jobs from top to bottom now the come from university and all they know is what they were taught but nothing about what really happens at the bottom level and all the way up Most have no clue on how to run the businesses they now are working in No real working experience at all

This would seem the most appropriate topic to discuss the newly devised T level qualifications – essentially what seem to be a return to the sandwich courses of yesteryear,

They’re planned to start in September 2020, but, like the unbelievably daft re-introduction of the old 1-9 gradings for GCSE (in the original system 1 was the top grade and 9 simply an acknowledgement the examination was actually sat), the big question voiced by many in Education is whether these are “now yet another in a long line of government projects that have been deemed too important to fail, despite the long and failure-strewn history of reform to vocational qualifications.”

Professor Ewart Keep, of Oxford University, is typically guarded and cautious, asking “Does anyone (not least at the Department for Education) remember the 14-to-19 diplomas, to which T-levels bear a strong family resemblance?”.

Writing in FEWeek he says “There are lots of reasons to worry about T-levels, but I only have space for a couple here. First, there is the issue of what might be termed “critical mass”. This has two aspects.

Will there be enough students, particularly at colleges outside large urban areas, to make some of the pathways viable? I am curious if anyone has run the numbers on this. Colleges report they need an intake of 18 to 20 students to make a course/pathway “wash its face” financially. How many colleges will get 18 to 20 applicants for some of the pathways?

This in turn reflects a second, much broader issue about student numbers.

“This time, it will be different” and “we will make it work” are phrases I hear repeated by officials

T-levels will operate at level three. In many colleges, the bulk of their 16-to-18/19 students are studying at level two or below. Thus in 2016/17 the enrolments at 16 to 18 at different levels were as follows: entry/foundation level – 119,450; level one – 198,830; level two – 427,780; level three – 620,650.

In the new world, large numbers will be on their transition year before T-levels. Official assumptions seem to be that the majority will ultimately move up to level three and onto T-levels. If current patterns of labour market demand and student achievement hold good this is unlikely, however. At many colleges, especially in less prosperous areas, the majority of students will not be on T-levels, or at level three.”

He concludes by noting something that Educationalists know only too well: “The Wakeham Review of STEM, and the Shadbolt Review of computer science provision have both stressed the need for more and better work experience provision to ensure employability and the relevance of courses to working life. Multiple demands on employers may lead to stress and disengagement. Policy on work placements needs to look at demand from education holistically rather than in discrete blobs like T-levels.

Selling T-levels to employers is going to be a major task.”

He’s not alone. Writing in the TES Joe Dromey, deputy director of research and development at the Learning and Work Institute, writes “T levels offer an opportunity to transform the system for the better. But with just over 18 months to go before the first students enrol, big questions remain. Whether or not T levels succeed will depend on whether the government can find answers to these.”

Once again, as with decades of Educational ‘initiatives’, the old ideas are being re-presented to learners and employers in the hope they’ll work – somehow.

One major issue is the inherent conflict between schools with sixth forms and FE colleges. This leads to information regarding FE courses being difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain for year 11 students. And with FE colleges having had real-term funding slashed by 30% how committed and available will places be?

One possibility would be to eliminate all sixth forms in schools and make all students have to move to FE colleges to do anything post-16. But teachers with good degrees who know and love their subjects gain most job satisfaction when teaching the older and sharper minds. It’s likely they would move en masses to FE, leaving schools with a major deficit in the best minds.

It’s far from an easy subject but those in year 10 are going to be plunged into this when they reach their GCSEs.