It's nearly that time of year: school's out and it's the summer holidays, but you've blown the student loan, your folks are cringing at the thought of you coming home and as for job ads, - what's the point? Work experience is just a glorified phrase for tea boy and what can you possibly gain from working in a sandwich bar? Well, quite a lot, actually.
Thankfully, these days, even the most fervent pessimist will realise that that gloomy outlook no longer applies. There are numerous companies offering summer placements with not a teabag in sight and there are plenty of short-term jobs out there. Granted, unless your dad is a very big cheese it’s unlikely you’ll be earning big bucks at Boeing but even if you’re just serving in a coffee shop the experience you gain can be invaluable.
“Any experience can be valuable but the problem is that people who have worked in a bar, coffee house or other temporary job rarely stop to think about what skills they have actually learned,” says Jane Artess, research director at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit.
All experience is valuable – don’t write it off
“If you look at the reports describing what kind of skills employers are looking for they nearly always come back to general things – the ability to communicate effectively, get on in teams, reliability, honesty and so on. Just serving coffee rarely is just that. It’s also managing customer expectation, working under pressure as part of a team, forward planning and handling money – attributes that many people write off.”
As for finding vacation work, the blindingly obvious resource is the Internet. Google “summer jobs” and it’ll throw up over 1,390,000,000 options. For example, the London Olympic Committee estimate that more than 100,000 people will be paid to work on the games – all with different backgrounds, skills and experiences – from catering to IT, security to logistics coordinating.
Summerjobs.co.uk also has hundreds of choices – for experienced and inexperienced alike - and emphasises that summer is a time for special events so there’s plenty of opportunity for paid overtime for weekend work. Prospects, the official graduate website, also has a section devoted entirely to work experience opportunities.
There are now also many specific work placement schemes - like e-Placement Scotland, that has just launched its “Let’s Get Paid” initiative – which helps students at Scottish universities and colleges find paid IT work placements. Recruiting year-round and with placements from three to 12 months, opportunities range from software and mobile app development to telecoms and digital technologies. Feedback from students who have completed placements shows that many have subsequently been offered full time posts on qualifying.
Diana Crisan, from the University of Edinburgh bagged a job as software developer at Flexiant who provide cloud infrastructure software and services on a salary of £18.5k pro rata.
“I was really well taken care of and I settled into my new work environment quickly. It was challenging, which made it interesting and I gained lots of coding experience. Plus I learnt not to be as scared as before, when I had to modify something in a big and complex program.”
Exploring new avenues
Aside from obtaining experience in the discipline you’re studying, work placements are also a great way of exploring new avenues.
“Placements typically allow students to test drive different positions in a company and to foster not only key technical skills but those all-important soft skills that employers are looking for, team working, communication and interpersonal skills,” says Parmjit Chima, head of the School of Engineering at Birmingham City University.
Through extensive involvement with companies, which include such heavyweights as Rolls Royce, JCB and Jaguar-Landrover, Birmingham’s School of Engineering finds employment opportunities for students as well as providing opportunities for them to undertake industry-based projects, placements and company visits.
“The School of Engineering offers a large number of courses which have a high degree of technical content and vocational relevance. It has close connections with professional bodies in engineering that provide an avenue for student placement on short or long term basis,” says Chima.
From an industry perspective paid placements are a valuable way for companies to tap into the dynamic talent pool at universities and colleges.
BMT Defence Services is one such company. It has established links with universities all over the UK allowing students to apply for summer placements that run from six to 10 weeks.
“Students gain experience in naval architecture, systems engineering and if there are opportunities to go on board ships or submarines then we can facilitate that too,” explains Magdalene Jenkins, BMT’s head of HR.
“We look for people with enquiring minds who have the ability and willingness to share their knowledge with others. We also provide a number of bursaries each year for people selected from summer placements. They will then come back to another summer placement or go to another part of the BMT group if they want to try out something new. After that we would hope that they would join us – but of course there is no obligation to do so.”
Summer placements further afield
There are also opportunities for summer placements abroad. Chinese company Huawei is a leading telecoms solutions provider that runs a five-week summer placement scheme starting in August. Students, selected from Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Southampton travel to Beijing to learn about Chinese working practices, basic language skills and Chinese culture. The group is then flown to Huawei’s HQ in Shenzhen where they receive training in Huawei products and solutions, and experience life in Huawei’s Logistics Centre and R&D labs.
Whatever sector you find yourself in there’s no denying that on-the-job training produces a more mature, confident person better equipped for full-time employment or further studies. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve had little or seemingly irrelevant work experience.
Highlight all the skills you’ve gained
Jane Artess is keen to impress upon people to think about the skills they already have.
“The key is to avoid thinking you haven’t got skills and you need to get them. Employers may not be directly interested in that Pret a Manger job in terms of an actual qualification – but what they will note is what you’ve learned from that experience. Many employers are looking for people who are good self-developers.
If you’re applying for say, a trainee marketing manager position you can take things out of your coffee shop experience and tailor them.”
Oh, and don’t forget that aside from gaining experience that summer job guarantees you’ll have brass in your pocket!