These days employers are increasingly looking for people with practical experience as well as academic achievements. Industrial work placements are the key to gaining this kind of experience whilst still studying – either at university or at college.
Regardless of how much you think you know about your chosen career you can never be really clued up about what a job really entails until you’ve actually worked in that role. An industrial placement is a perfect introduction to the workplace and helps you understand where your strengths lie. It gives you the chance to road test your dream career: you may realise that it isn’t actually for you and can set about changing your trajectory. Alternatively if you decide it is the right one, you get a head start on that path.
Whether it's for a week, the summer or a year, an industrial placement can equip you with a host of skills aside from those required for a specific job: Such as organisation and time management and, unless you’ve decided to become a solo inventor in your own private shed, learning to work effectively as part of a team.
Looking for industrial placements also gives you valuable experience for actual job hunting. Many recruitment processes can be pretty challenging, often involving application forms, telephone interviews, and the ever-daunting face-to-face interview. But if you’ve already sharpened these skills you’re guaranteed to stand out from the crowd.
You may even find that a successful placement leads to a job offer as many companies use industrial placements as part of their apprenticeship or graduate recruitment programme. But if they don’t your work placement will at least yield contacts and a valuable reference that you can add to your skill set.
Training programmes in Wales
Having passed all his GCSEs, including two in engineering Curtis Williams was unsure about which step to take next – until a friend told him about ACT Training in Wales. Among its many schemes ACT offers traineeship programmes to 16-18-year olds that give work placements with some of Wales’ top employers. These programmes enable school leavers to gain a Level 1 qualification and provide a stepping-stone towards an apprenticeship.
“I went to register and discussed a possible career in engineering,” explains Williams. “I did basic training at ACT for about a month or so and then I started my work placement at Cyrus Engineering in Cardiff.” During the work placement Williams was provided with a £50 per week allowance and travel expenses, and also had the option for tuition in essential skills such as communication, team working, problem solving and IT.
From intern to apprentice
“After about three or four weeks Cyrus said they’d take me on as an apprentice. At the moment I am on the machines – but I’ve also had a go on a lathe and I have been welding as well. My boss guides me along with other skilled Cyrus staff.”
An ACT trainer visits Williams’ workplace once a month to assess his progress, set him tasks and give feedback to Williams’ employers.
“I am starting day release from this September for my MVQ level 2 MechEng,” beams Williams. “Hopefully I’ll get full-time employment with Cyrus – as a qualified mechanical engineer. I am really glad I signed up with ACT and found a work placement. It gave me a chance, an insight into what skills employers are looking for and I get to learn how to do a job from both a practical point of view and via studying.”
The length of time spent in a work placement depends on the sector and individual employer. Some work placements are undertaken during holidays and so last between one and three months. Other placements involve working one day a week over a period of time.
Spending a year in industry
On some degree courses you will need to spend a year in industry. This 'sandwich placement', usually takes place between your second and final year at university. There are, however, similar placements available before you actually start university.
Organisations like Cambridge Consultants have a technology scholarship scheme that lasts around ten months and is offered to students in-between finishing their A levels and going to university. The scheme provides industrial experience in a wide range of technical disciplines like engineering and applied science.
‘Tech Scholars’ take part in the day-to-day work of the company, interspersed with periods of practical training relevant to their chosen discipline with a trained member of staff nominated to act as a mentor.
Magnus Whittle came across the scheme in his last year at school.
“I found them by accident through The Year In Industry who organise gap years and recommend companies you’d might like to do a placement with,” explains Whittle.
“Since I have been here I have worked across the board - optics, mechanical design, mechanical assembly, and modeling. Project managers will look to find people to fill roles for all the different projects and you get to choose what you do.”
“We are also assigned mentors and mine has been incredibly helpful – he’s number one on my speed dial! They tend to be recent graduates – so they’re not too far from where you are.”
Cambridge Consultants have around 400 employees of whom ten per cent are tech scholars. Although they are not obliged to stay with the organisation after their placement is completed tech scholars are given quite a few incentives. In addition to a wage, free lunches and social activities there is the chance of obtaining support for your further education.
“You get all the experience which is great for CV and proves that you can successfully work full-time before you’ve even finished university,” says Whittle. “You’re also invited back every summer for eight weeks of further work and if you perform well you can also get a bursary.”
“I fell into this and so far it’s the best thing I’ve done both personally and for my career – I’ve learnt more than I ever would have done before going to university.”