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How to make the most of your time in work experience

Advice on gaining the most from any work experience placement.

Achievement sign post What you can expect from your time on work experience

If you've never undertaken work experience before it can feel quite daunting, but don't worry we've all been there. To put you at ease, here's an introduction into what to expect.

Work experience gives you a chance to get a feel for the working environment, how you should present yourself, an understanding of the types of roles available and what it's like to work from nine until five! It also helps you prepare for the job-hunting experience.

"You should look on work experience as a natural route to preparing yourself for the work environment," explains Andy Airey, chief executive of the Inspiring Futures Foundation. "The process of seeking work experience (e.g. planning, research, writing application letters and CVs, interviews) and on-the-job experience helps to develop your skills and demonstrates maturity and ambition to a prospective employer."

When on a work placement you'll be given real work tasks to complete and the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals. You'll also have the opportunity to use and develop essential skills for your career, including team working, communication and organisational.

"The more skills you have the more interesting the work experience can be," highlights Carole Teacher, Mott MacDonald's learning and development manager. "Usually you will be able to see the process of fulfilling a job, from client meetings to managing the workflow, to designing or manufacturing. Most employers try to take a work experience student to customer meetings, to building or manufacturing sites and try to give them meaningful work."

How to make the most of your work experience

Once you have secured work experience, you should look to make the most of your time with the employer, whether it's for a week, the summer or a 12-month industrial placement. The experience gained varies by company so be sure to do your research, asking questions to find out typically what kind of work you will be doing.

"Engineering companies often want to road test people, so you can get to work on some interesting projects," says Rebecca Austin, resourcing manager at TRW Automotive. "Small companies may not offer as much of a social scene but candidates are more likely to get an end-to-end experience. At bigger companies the placement scheme is likely to be more structured," she notes.

Also consider asking for someone to act as a mentor or supervisor so that you can gain feedback and ask questions about the job and about the industry in general.

Take all opportunities given

Companies we spoke to all highlighted that by letting employers know you're keen, you're more likely to be given more opportunities, so be sure to take everything you're offered.

"You should get involved in additional training that they offer you - schemes that entail 'giving back to the community' etc - as this will enhance your CV and make you 'stand out from the crowd'. You should also try to be proactive, offering your time and assistance when your colleagues need help. In other words, become an invaluable member of the team," advises City University London's Professional Liaison Unit.

Want to do something specific? Ask

"Once you have the job, talk to your manager and sell any other skills you may want to highlight," adds Austin. "If you want to experience other areas of the company make sure you ask. Managers like candidates who are keen and hard working and who can be left to get on with things. Talk to your new colleagues and find out what they do, if they work on something which you find interesting see if you can get involved. Most importantly, if an opportunity comes your way, your answer should be yes!"

Indeed, it is important to be clear about what you want to get out of the experience and tell the employer without being too demanding. If you show yourself to be willing to help and keen to learn you'll find a lot more opportunities will become available to you. Immerse yourself as much as possible in your role and you'll come away with a full understanding on what the job entails and what areas you want to go into after graduation.

Also be prepared to do some possibly dull, hard work, you'll be expected to prove yourself before being given the more 'interesting' jobs with more responsibility.

"Throw yourself into it, be open minded and inquisitive," enthuses John Seasman, executive divisional manager, Reed Technical Services. "Always take every opportunity that comes your way, be flexible and prepared to do some of the grunt work, that way you open yourself up to as much of a varied work experience as possible. It's a chance to learn as much as you can so keep your eyes and ears open and ask sensible questions, that way you will gain a lot of understanding.”

Record what you learn/do

Although you may consider it very early days in your career as an engineer or technologist, it is key to record what you do during your time on work placement.

We recommend using the IET's Career Manager, an online skills development and recording tool for members. You can use this to record all the different things you do and skills you learn which will help you in the future when you apply for jobs and also a little further down your career when you begin to consider professional registration. Yes, skills you learn now may help you progress throughout your entire career.

"[Record your experience]. It will become increasingly helpful as time goes by," says Airey. "It will enable you to reflect on your experience and ask questions throughout your work experience term and to record what you learned about the business and yourself. You can note contacts that you can go back to in the future.

"Most importantly you will be building up a bank of information that you can use when you are ready to write your CV and application letters. You can draw out key features to create your personal statement and highlight the knowledge and experience gained through your placement."

Ask for references

When your work placement is coming to an end always be sure to ask for a decent written reference from your employer before you leave. This is something you can take with you to your new employers and shows that your past employer was impressed enough with your contribution that they were happy to take the time to write a professional reference for you.