Work experience - not just photocopying or sweeping up hair.
Edd Williams is a parent, a school governor, a recruitment consultant and an academic consultant, although not necessarily in that order.
Once upon a time, for a few days towards the end of the school year, school students were hurled into the local community to wreak havoc on primary schools, small local businesses and benevolent uncles' offices. This was work experience, a school mandated, box-ticking exercise spent shuffling around someone else's office or shop, moving papers around and making awkward small talk about your enduring interest in high density glass manufacturing or similar. That was my experience when I was 16 and I was surprised to learn when I go into schools now, some 20 odd years later that it remains pretty much the norm. Quite rightly most students have a dim view of what 'work experience' means and consider it to be a waste of time, particularly when they've more pressing concerns to occupy their thoughts and time.
So, here is my attempt to convince you otherwise. Work experience is important. Ta-dah! How did I do? Not satisfied? Fine, work experience is invaluable in ways you may never have considered and could conceivably shape your choices, your career and conceivably your life. No matter when you read this, if you're considering what A levels to choose, are looking at university and degree choices, an apprenticeship perhaps or a midway through your undergraduate programme, what I have to say is relevant and pertinent to you and your decision making.
Let's break it down into easy, digestible morsels of facty goodness - why is it good? Suppose for a moment at the age of 15 you were considering a career in law, now suppose you made all your decisions based on that supposition. You emerge from university some 6 years later with an LLB/LPC and a bunch of other letters hanging about your name. You walk in to that first job and behold, you hate it. It's not what you thought, expected or wanted but you've made your bed now so... Law as a profession like all careers, is an artificial construct, no one is born with an inherent sense of wanting to be a lawyer, they may grow up with a sense of integrity, a desire to right wrongs, see justice served, be argumentative or just make a lot of money but none of these are unique to law per se, they are just the kind of obvious connection that a school or society may steer you towards.
The only way to truly know whether a career, any career is for you is to get in to that environment, kick the tyres, look under the bonnet and ask questions. Only then can you really appreciate what it entails and only then can or should you make an informed choice about your future. To follow the law example through, it may be that you have chosen wisely but once you get in to that environment it helps better shape and define what specific area you may want to study, whether to become a barrister, practice corporate law for a large PLC, join a country practice doing conveyancing or working in commercial management and so on. By walking a mile in their legal moccasins you get to truly examine which elements are most interesting and the choices you subsequently make, much better serve that potential future.
That's just one of the many reasons quality work experience (note the word quality) is so important. Think about it, your school in all likelihood will have co-opted a teacher into dispensing careers advice, bear in mind, they have worked as a teacher and that's pretty much it, they are completely ill-equipped to offer you any advice beyond the generic tips they've cherry picked from Google. If you go to the place where that thing you think you want to do is done - everyone there is a potential source of information, it's like a hive mind of career tremendousness. It's not keyword dependant, you can just ask questions, 'How did you get into this?' 'What did you study?' 'What's the best part of the job? What's the worst part of the job?' and so on and so on. On top of which these are the people that could offer you internships during your studies, offer letters of recommendation in support of your first job application, give you your first job, vouch for you with colleagues or contribute to your UCAS personal statement.
At the age of 15 it will also allow you to begin to hone your professional comportment skills, get used to talking to adults in an adult way in an adult environment which will be of no end of benefit when it comes to interviewing or selling yourself with articulacy and clarity of thought. It will add to your ongoing personal portfolio of skills - when it comes to career selection or university application or apprenticeships, there are very fine lines of distinction between you and the person sitting next to you. The game is kind of rigged, if you are applying for a certain course, there's a good chance that your competition will have a very similar set of experiences and grades as you. The nature of the UCAS system is that your predicted subjects and grades inform where and what you apply for and it stands to reason that everyone else applying will have a similar profile. The only thing that makes you stand out are the experiences that are unique to you, that you have actively sought out for yourself.
This is true for graduates as well, it's got so that 2:1's are so common as to be the minimum requirement and with Firsts being tossed around like confetti at a wedding, academic distinction is almost impossible to achieve on paper. The best, and in my opinion, only way to distinguish yourself and break away from the herd, use your holidays wisely, intern wherever possible, volunteer in related areas, act as a TA for your professor. Whatever and whenever you can, you should be adding to your professional portfolio, creating a cogent narrative that shows a long standing interest and passion for the area in which you are looking to work. That is much more compelling than someone who has been to school, gone to university and is now looking for a job.
Work experience is the silver bullet for career success, not just in achieving that critical springboard into the right role or graduate scheme but also at the point of inception ensuring you don't waste time and money pursuing a career that you will quickly come to regret. So start today and call someone who does what you want to do and ask to shadow them. It'll be the best call you'll ever make.
Find more from Edd Williams on his blog: www.edducan.com.
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