Young man in an office

Experience pays

Work experience is no longer an optional extra says Dr Gordon Mizner, chief executive of EDT.

If you read any article about the recruitment of young people, particularly to the top employers, you will see that the subject of work experience is a recurrent theme. In an annual survey of the UK’s leading graduate employers more than half of the respondents warned that graduates without work experience are unlikely to be successful during the selection process and have little or no chance of receiving a job offer for their organisations’ graduate programmes.

In 2011 the same survey reported that a third of all graduate jobs would go to people who had already done work experience with those firms. To back up this requirement the vast majority of top employers provide industrial placements for undergraduates (typically for 6-12 months) while more than half offer vacation internships lasting three weeks or longer.

The survey covered all graduate jobs and the same pattern is true in the engineering, science and technology sectors where EDT operates. At EDT we run the well known The Year in Industry programme which allows gap year and undergraduate year long placements with most of the UK’s leading engineering companies, such as Shell, Rolls Royce, British Energy, L’Oreal, Network Rail and AstraZeneca.

Our experience is that employers generally view work experience as a route to developing a relationship with a student with a view to future employment. Of those taking part in The Year in Industry around a quarter enter into some kind of scholarship arrangement with the employer while many made ongoing arrangements for vacation and other part time work.

Why work experience? – The company perspective

So what is it about work experience that makes it so attractive to employers? Well part of it is obvious. A recruitment process is designed to discover whether a candidate for a full-time position is suitable for the post. For a company a work experience programme allows them to assess all elements of a potential recruit in a much more reliable way than an interview assessment day could provide.

The other part of the value of work experience is less obvious. Many graduates coming out of a degree course may be excellently qualified in terms of their subject but can be lacking in the other skills that are required to be successful in industry. Project management skills, presentation skills, team-working skills, and leadership skills all are vital to successful performance in a company. Work experience allows these skills to be developed in a learning environment rather than a company having to wait for a new recruit to have to learn these skills on the job.

Alongside learning the soft skills, a work experience placement also allows a student to learn how a particular company operates, its procedures, culture, ethos, and ways of doings things. If a recruit has learned these things in a work placement then the learning curve will be much less steep when they come to full time employment.

The benefits to a company of employing somebody who has previously been on work experience with them are therefore clear. The company has the opportunity to assess them at leisure in the work environment. It has the opportunity to teach them the ‘soft skills’ they will need for full time employment in a learning environment and the employee will have found his or her way around the company in terms of culture and practices during the work placement so will fit in much more quickly and easily than somebody without that experience.

Why work experience? – The student perspective

Many of the benefits to the company are mirrored in the benefit to the student. A student that has done work experience with a company will be able to assess the culture, ethos and working practices of the company, and decide whether it is an environment in which they would wish to start their working lives.

Similarly the soft skills such as team work and project management that are learned on work placement are transferable skills that are just as valuable to other future employers. If a student can quantify and provide examples of projects they have managed or the skills they have developed then these factors are just as attractive to other potential employers.

Jieying Luo completed a work placement year with Delphi Diesel Ltd in September, expanding their reference injector storage area. As a result of her work a new secure storage area was installed with sufficient capacity for a further five years; previously the lack of storage space was at crisis point.

She is now able to point to her successful project and detail the skills that she has learned in implementing it.

“The year I spent with Delphi Diesel was an amazing experience,” she says. “To be pitched into an environment where you have to develop quickly the team working, project management and technical skills in order to succeed is challenging and character forming, but ultimately very satisfying. The Year in Industry has provided me with skills and experience that will stand me in good stead for the future and has provided me with insights that give me a much better understanding of the options I have for my career.”

Not just graduates

At EDT we don’t just work with gap year students and undergraduates, in fact much of our work is involved in developing links between schools and local businesses. It is becoming increasingly clear that companies are seeing the benefits of introducing themselves to potential employees at a very early stage in their careers. A number of the companies we work with give students at secondary school a taste of work experience in their local sites as they see themselves developing a pipeline of potential recruits, as much for apprentice level recruitment as for graduate level employment.

One thing is clear, at whatever level you are looking to enter industry, work experience is no longer an optional extra. It is a requirement for your CV if you are going to be taken seriously as a potential employee. If you don’t have good work experience on your CV, I would make it a 2013 resolution to remedy that omission.

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