Students on IBM's Extreme Blue internship

Finding the perfect work placement

Here are our top tips to kick-start your work experience hunt and help put you in the frame for available opportunities.

We all know that real world work experience enhances a CV and makes you more marketable in what continues to be a difficult job market, but securing an informal placement or full-blown internship isn’t always easy.

Even if you are prepared to work for little or nothing, convincing an employer to give you a chance and invest time in you has its challenges. When it comes to formal internships, there tends to be vast competition for places, and with the recession having forced many experienced people into part-time work, neither can you assume that you can easily pick up a holiday job any more.

The importance of acquiring work experience shouldn’t be underestimated though and you need to approach your search with the same level of professionalism as you would a full-time, paid job.

Start close to home

University careers services are one of the best places to start to seek out work experience opportunities. Jade Fevyer, information co-ordinator, placements and career service at Bournemouth University, advises students to start looking as early as possible from the first year onwards and not to wait until the final year to do so.

“We advertise a number of work opportunities including part-time, volunteering and placements on our online system Careerhub which we encourage students to apply to directly,” she explains.

Most universities will have a mechanism for connecting students with opportunities and also make sure you are aware of any events being held on campus which will enable you to put yourself in front or prospective employers.

Compile a hit list

Make a list of companies for which you would like to work and contact them direct offering your services in the holiday. Do your homework on them first and check out the careers sections of their websites where they may advertise placements. Even if they are not advertising, it shouldn’t stop you making contact with them. Look for a contact name in the HR or recruitment department or else write to the standard email address they provide such as careers@.... Also check out the about us and media sections where you will find the latest news about the organisation.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high and contacting major corporations but bear in mind that small to medium size companies (SMEs) may allow you to be more hands-on. Plus with pressure on time and resources, it may be that SMEs provide a more receptive and therefore fertile hunting ground for finding a work experience opportunity.

Mark yourself out

If you’ve worked on a project at university or have a bright idea, this can be a good way of getting noticed. Package it as a proposal and put it in context for the sector/company you are targeting. Even if they don’t take you up on your idea, it shows great initiative and that you are innovative and proactive. Remember to safeguard your idea though by keeping records of any correspondence.

Connect with placement sites

There are masses of online sites that help connect students with potential placement/work experience opportunities such as ratemyplacement.co.uk, inspiringinterns.com, Prospects, internaware.org and getworkexperience.com to name just a few.

The National Council for Work Experience site is aimed more at employers but its work experience awards can make interesting reading as they reward organisations that offer ‘outstanding placement’ opportunities. This year games developer Jagex Games Studio was the overall winner. The nationalworkexperiencecampaign.com site is also worth checking out for general advice.

Presentation is everything

A professional CV is as important when looking for work experience or a placement as it is when applying for a full-time job. Apply Altra, an Aberdeen-based oil and gas engineering consultancy, offers placements across its various disciplines from process to electrical engineering and receives up to ten applications for each vacancy.

“If the presentation of the document itself is below average then it does make me think twice about the quality of the candidate and their attention to detail," says Pauline Hall, the company’s HR manager, whose job it is to whittle down the crop of hopeful students.

“It can be a difficult task but one of the first things I look for when I'm trying to sort through the applications is whether or not the student has had any outstanding achievements, won any awards or had [achieved] very high grades.”

Gain employability skills

All work experience is valid. The dream ticket is securing a placement or summer job in the field of engineering or technology but working in a bar, shop or factory, for instance, will help you develop valuable employability skills. Suss out opportunities in your local area so you can live at home and therefore more cheaply. Bear in mind that the recession has increased competition for part-time and casual work so you should exercise the same standards of professionalism and commitment when approaching employers about any available opportunities.

Extend your boundaries

Consider volunteering abroad. There are some amazing projects that involve real-life technical and engineering challenges that students can get involved in, especially in lesser-developed countries. A survey by professional networking site LinkedIn revealed that 55 per cent of professionals said that when evaluating candidates they consider volunteer work just as valuable as paid work experience. It also found that one in five hiring managers have made a hiring decision because of a candidate’s volunteering work.

Find out more about what it’s like to volunteer abroad by reading Roger Morton’s story about volunteering in India with Engineers Without Borders.

Polish your personal and professional online image

Having a profile on the professional networking site LinkedIn is a must once you start looking for a full-time job but it’s never too early to start so get yourself on there if you aren’t already.

Having created a professional profile you can then set about networking by connecting to people and joining relevant groups.

“Getting your name out there can be hugely beneficial so used LinkedIn and Twitter to network potential employers and get a foot in the door,” says a spokesperson for Prospects, which also reminds us that social media can be a double-edged sword.

“It’s increasingly being used by employers to check up on potential candidates so make sure your online profile is positive.”

Less well-know than LinkedIn but gaining momentum are sites such as BeKnown (developed by the job board Monster) and BranchOut which both allow you to create a professional networking profile on Facebook.

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