The different types of work experience available, and what they entail.
There are many different types of work experience opportunities out there, each suited to specific stages in your education or early career. Here we’ll run you through the main options and what they entail.
Many smaller companies will be open to taking on students for a week of work shadowing to get an insight into a role or a company. This is a great way to explore the world of work when you are in your first year of university. If you can amass two or three stints of work shadowing it will stand you in good stead to secure a longer placement.
Make full use of vacation periods to fit these in. It's also advisable to take part in any mentor schemes available at your institution; having a professional to advise and coach you regarding career planning is a very valuable opportunity.
At the end of your first or second year at university you might find that your technical skills and experience are limited, which will affect your competitive advantage. This is a great time to develop your soft skills in a professional environment. Many companies have excellent two or three month paid internship opportunities for students. These are often project-based and can give you the chance to take ownership of a project. This experience may also help you to establish what field of work you would like to pursue. If you're interested in finding out more about this kind of work experience, we recommend you read our article Why project-based placements are perfect for young engineers.
Be aware that unless you are volunteering you deserve to be paid at minimum wage and do be wary of any placement that isn't clearly defined.
Employers will often take on students during Easter and Summer breaks or for a gap year (see below) but you can also apply for an internship after you graduate.
There is often a lot of competition for places, so ensure that you are proactive in applying and highlight all of your relevant skills and experience. You may face multiple stages of tests and interviews, but a successful application will enhance your employment opportunities after graduation. Your college or university career service may also be able to assist you with finding and applying for internships.
If you would prefer to work for a smaller company, or if you have applied to larger companies and been unsuccessful, you might want to consider making some speculative applications. Look at the job specifications for formal schemes in the corporate world and think about how a similar role might translate to a smaller company. Pick up the phone and speak to people about how you might be able to help them on a short-term basis.
The down side of short placements is that you have a limited time to make an impact and sometimes it may take a while to settle into the workplace hence it pays to make the most of your time at your placement. Often students expect to be given significant responsibility and to be client-facing. Whilst this can and does happen, bear in mind that it can take a while for employers to trust your capabilities before they can risk giving you lots of responsibility or sending you out to meet their clients.
Gap years range from taking time out during university to spending a period of time after graduating to travel, discover different cultures or gain a specific experience. They provide an opportunity to develop a variety of skills, try new activities and make useful contacts - all useful material to impress potential employers.
They can also provide time to review life and career goals. However, it is worth bearing in mind that they can also be costly, increase debt, and potentially result in missed job opportunities due to unavailability.
Voluntary work is essentially volunteering your services for free. There is usually no obligation to perform work, or contract or formal agreement. You may wish to volunteer abroad on a building project or teaching in a school, but you don't have to go overseas to help, as there are always opportunities to volunteer within your local community. For example: assisting the disabled, undertaking conservation work, getting involved with your IET Local Network, or promoting engineering in a local school.
Most volunteer roles don't need specific skills and some offer free training and valuable networking opportunities. As well as the feeling of satisfaction you get from helping others, you can gain skills in team working, using your initiative and becoming more confident. It also shows future employers a lot about your character.
Many degrees will have the flexibility for you to spend your penultimate year in industry. It is a big commitment and it is worth bearing in mind;
Placement years are undoubtedly one of the best ways to make an impact and experience what it is like to be a full-time employee. Many year-long placements give you real responsibility, can be project-based, and are at the level of a graduate job. Placements often carry a competitive salary too.
This type of placement does help to contextualise final year work and students often raise a degree classification. Having real-world experience of managing clients, systems development, resource management, professional issues, deadlines and competitors in the market place will give your academic work maturity and you might find that you are more motivated than you used to be. If you make a good impression and the company decides that it doesn't want to lose you, it may fast-track you through its graduate recruitment process, or even guarantee you a job offer for when you graduate.
Placements can take place in small, medium and large companies. Some can be very formal, structured placements and others can be informal but give you excellent exposure to the whole business. Do not be put off by placements offered by smaller companies; the exposure you get from operating across all functions of a business can be just as rewarding.
The difficult thing about taking a year out is that you will lose your peer group but if you make the effort to keep in touch you will have two sets of advocates to support you throughout your career. In some industries, who you know is as important as what you know.
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. You will usually need to apply to the HR team in the country that you want to work in rather than the UK office. Be aware of extra costs such as needing comprehensive insurance, sometimes vaccinations and securing safe accommodation, as well as possible visa issues you may have to deal with.
If you don't fancy going it alone and working abroad, seek advice from your international office and research if your university runs an Erasmus exchange programme and consider spending a semester studying abroad at a partner institution.
Originally published August 2011. Last updated November 2017. With thanks to City University’s Professional Liaison Unit.