By Edd Williams, careers expert and author of Is Your School Lying To You?
Are you Experienced?
‘Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing.’ Oscar Wilde
Experience in this instance is less to do with age and how many times you’ve been around the block but rather the value of the activities you’ve taken part in, the situations you’ve put yourself in and what you’ve learnt from them. Doing something without learning from it can’t reasonably be considered an experience – it’s just something you did – but an admissions tutor, an employer, someone who can offer you help and guidance, wants to understand the how and why of your journey, what you’ve learnt along the way, how that knowledge and experience has benefitted you and how it informs what/how you do things and what you hope to learn as you continue.
Most students I’ve worked with or spoken to have had some form of work experience placement organised by their school. A laudable and noble aim but the vast majority of students tend to have a rubbish time of it, most of them seemed to either work in an uncle’s office doing photocopying, or in a primary school that their school had links to. Those are just two examples and may not reflect what happened/happens in your school, but overwhelmingly with the people I’ve dealt with, the placements didn’t speak to what they wanted to do or reflect where they wanted to go.
How do we change that?
Simply put, you need to get off your butt. The school can only ever do so much – remember this is your life, not theirs; if they’ve got to organise work for 150 kids some of you are going to slip through the net. If they were a lifeguard and you were drowning along with another 149 kids you’d probably give swimming a shot rather than bobbing up and down in the water. Take charge of your own life and sort out work experience that is relevant and interesting for you. Plus, businesses and people will respond much more favourably to someone with a genuine interest and passion for a subject who has the chops to come and ask for help rather than having a disinterested teenager being foisted upon them.
How do I organise it?
Same message as before, get off your butt and do it! The shiny-things-obsessed brain worm will find a way to encourage you to put it off, procrastinate, and otherwise derail your best intentions, but you need to just get on and do it. But how to begin?
Identify the areas in which you are interested. This could be a variety of things – remember half the point of this exercise is to prove or disprove your interest in a certain area. If you’re not sure, give it a whirl, stick it on the list. A couple of hours out of your life is hardly going to derail the whole process and you might surprise yourself positively or negatively – either way it’s all good because you’ve learned a little something.
Get on the internet, look at local companies that are working in this area, look at their websites; the more you know about them the more you can re ne who you approach and explain to them what specifically about them interests you.
Ask your parents and parents’ friends and friends’ parents who they know. Is there anyone in your extended network that may be able to help you? Don’t be afraid to ask – they can only say no.
Make a list of the companies most suited to what you want to explore.
Develop a short sales pitch/rehearse what you want to say when you introduce yourself.
Get on the phone, go to their offices, send them an email and make sure that your email address is work-appropriate, no ‘BigBoi69’s or ‘Sexylegs’ please. No one thinks it’s funny.
That’s it! When you break it down like that it’s really not so very hard is it? Have a think, make some calls. Simple. Yet most people don’t do this anywhere near enough, if at all.
What do I say? How do I ask?
There are two important things to remember here – don’t try and be clever, and get to the point. People, generally speaking, are good eggs and will happily give you some of their time, but they owe you nothing, so do your research, be prepared and don’t waste their valuable time. You are entering their world, not they yours, so act accordingly – be professional, sincere, courteous and grateful.
Broadly speaking there will be three forms of approach – phone or email or turning up. Turning up is a pretty ballsy move as it pretty much demands an instant reaction; they may be impressed or if they’re busy or having a bad day it could push them over the edge. But with a CV and a winning smile the receptionist may take pity on you and give your details to the person you need. Otherwise it probably begins with calling their reception and asking who it is you need to speak to. Don’t overcomplicate it but do prepare in advance so you know what you are asking.
A simple example would be something like this:
‘Hi there. I was hoping you may be able to help. My name is X., I’m a student at X. I’m thinking about pursuing a career in X and was wondering whether there was anyone in the business
I could speak to about coming in to do some work experience just to get a sense of what it’s actually like?’
In all likelihood whoever answers the phone may say one of three things –
That’s not really something we do.
Yes, that will be Bob you need to speak to. Let me see if he’s available. (Other names may be available.)
Yes, the person you need to speak to is Colin (see?) I can give you his email address.
You should deal with any of these with grace and courtesy – rejection is a big part of life and work, so you mustn’t take it too personally. If you’ve spent ages steeling yourself to make that first call and you get shot down it can really wind you. Don’t be put off; it’s not you. How could it be? You said three sentences; sometimes companies just don’t do it. The next one may. If they put you straight through just remain calm; if you’ve done your preparation you should be just ne. The important thing to remember is that you may have to answer questions, they will likely ask things like:
What is it you want to do?
What about this career interests you?
What do you want to learn?
What do you think we can teach you/show you?
What are you hoping to get out of this?
When are you available to come in?
It’s important that you have thought about these things in advance and have rehearsed at least a few responses. As I said earlier, they are giving up their time: don’t waste it by saying ‘erm’ and ‘I dunno, stuff and that’. Think about your objectives and be honest with them, don’t try and dress it up; people respond to honesty – they don’t expect you to be a polished professional with answers to everything but they will expect you to try to behave accordingly and at least have an idea about what your objectives are. How can they help you if you don’t even know what you want?
The final option is that you will be given an email address and a contact name and, much like with your initial pitch to the reception, you drop them an email explaining who you are and why you are emailing them. In this scenario don’t pester them, give them at least a week to come back before following up, at which point call reception again and explain the situation, asking if you could speak to them. If they don’t respond, don’t push the matter; sometimes life gets in the way. Ideally you will have a number of other approaches live at the same time so your eggs should be in lots of baskets.
As for what you need to do when you’re actually there, having secured your work experience placement, you’ll need to read Edd’s book – Is Your School Lying To You? out now on Amazon and in all good bookshops!