Let’s run through the main options.
Work shadowing (first year of university)
Many smaller companies are open to taking on students for a week of work shadowing to get an insight into a role or a company. Two or three shadowing stints will make a great impression on future employers. You should also take advantage of any mentor schemes available at your institution to get professional coaching and insights.
Internships (first or second year of university)
Develop your soft skills in a professional environment with companies that offer two or three month paid internship opportunities for students. They’re often project-based and can give you the chance to take ownership of a project. They’ll also help you decide what field of work you want to go into. Read our article Why project-based placements are perfect for young engineers for more information.
Voluntary work (anytime)
This is essentially volunteering your services for free which means there’s usually no obligation to perform work, as there’s no contract or formal agreement. This kind of work experience can be local or abroad and can take many forms, assisting the disabled, undertaking conservation work, getting involved with your IET Local Network, for example. You’ll get a lot of satisfaction out of these positions and employers will be able to tell a lot about your character.
Sandwich placement (penultimate year of university)
Many degrees are flexible and let you spend your penultimate year in industry. Remember that it’s a big commitment because you’ll be taking a year out of university. You should be clear on what you want to do, where you want to do it, and the skills you want to develop. Placement years are one of the best ways to make an impact and experience what it is like to be a full-time employee because you’re given real responsibility at the level of a graduate job. They also often carry a competitive salary and can lead to permanent positions.
Increasingly recruiters are looking for graduates who are ready for the global workplace and an international career. Having a second language or having worked abroad will differentiate you from your peers. Research what international placements are offered by the big corporate companies. Be aware of the extra costs such as comprehensive insurance, vaccinations, safe accommodation, and visas which working abroad can incur. If you don't fancy going it alone, get advice from your international office and find out if your university runs an Erasmus exchange programme.