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Work Experience - How to make the most of it

Updated: Jan 8, 2020

With work experience a key part of any School Careers education programme, how do students ensure that they get the most out of it? Our guest blog by Dawn Metcalf, founder of the UAE’s Workplace Readiness Programme, shares her thoughts.

3 Key Takeaways From A Work Experience Placement

It’s too late to start supporting people as they make the transition from school to university, or from university to their first job. Instead we should be talking to them earlier, helping them work out what they’re good at, where their strengths lie, what kind of careers might prove satisfying and what motivates them. We should be helping them identify what type of environments they should avoid if they don’t want to wake up every morning living for the weekend and hating their place of work. After all, this is where they’ll probably spend most of their waking time...

All work experiences are, of course, not created equal. We’ve heard horror stories of young people spending their placement sitting in the lobby because their “host” didn’t know what to do with them. Others have been turned off a great possible career because of the behaviour of a colleague, host or manager who didn’t offer guidance in the way one would hope.

Similar tales of woe can be heard on the “other side” with businesses telling stories about entitled or clueless students and interns. Where they have an opportunity to bring fresh perspective to the business and get involved, they instead sit listlessly poking at their phone, waiting to be made “part of the team” rather than acting like it.

It’s about finding the right opportunity for the student and yet so often this process is hard or involves jumping over hurdles. In reality, the people (teachers) whose job it is to help students find the right path don’t have the time or the tools to do this. And young people are, above all, people. In other words, they will take the path of least resistance in many cases – especially in the face of exam pressure, parental pressure and university applications.

With the PDSI Work readiness programme, we do this not just by giving the young people we work with access to thorough, holistic psychometric assessments as early as possible - why wait until you’re in your 30s to start gaining the self-awareness many believe is key to success? We also provide them with the opportunity to try things out in the real world, preparing them and supporting them as they do so. And after, we help them nurture their fledgling professional network – when this grows, so do their future opportunities.

1. We learn from experience

And yet people need experience, as well as academia, to learn. Most adults will tell you they learned a lot from work they did as a teenager and, whilst those halcyon days of knowing you’ll always be able to pick up some “casual work” may be gone, young people still need a space to learn. Furthermore, they deserve for that experience to be valuable and, assuming they treat the opportunity professionally and are supported to understand what that means in practice, they deserve to be treated professionally in response. This is important. If you want to be treated seriously as a person then you have to behave seriously - what this means depends on a lot of different factors, so research your environment.

2. And we learn from failure

In some cases, as a young person or business, and despite the best efforts of all involved, your work experience may not turn out the way you hoped. That’s ok. As long as you learn something and use that experience, then it still has the potential to be valuable. If you didn’t burn something down, leave a confidential memo in a café, or tell the boss their child is ugly then it’s probably salvageable. You’ll inevitably do something “bad” or “wrong” at some stage. Learn how to apologise gracefully, and mean it - it’s an underrated skill, even (or particularly) among adults.

3. These could be the connections that count

And if nothing else, you’ve had an opportunity to build the network of people you may spend a lifetime helping and being helped by. Because it doesn’t matter whether your first job is baby-sitting or part of a more structured programme like ours, you have the same opportunities to develop skills, and show your abilities and the values you live by, to build a network. Perhaps you spent time in a role you didn’t enjoy, but you had a great relationship with your manager – that manager could well be your future employer, mentor or sponsor. Every connection has the potential to be valuable, even if you can’t see how at the moment. So make them count.

Remember it’s important to businesses and humans to identify and develop talent: it makes us feel good and it’s good for us. When I talk with senior leaders, across all industries, this what makes their eyes light up. The person you work with today may not be someone you work with forever, but they are someone you can learn from and probably somebody who wants to help you: give them a reason to do so.

Find out more at Work Readiness – bridging the gap between students and the world of work.

Dawn Metcalfe is a workplace culture advisor, author, speaker and managing director of PDSi, which helps individuals, teams and organisations change behaviours. Her team is behind the UAE’s Workplace Readiness Programme, bridging the gap between students and the world of work. Having lived and worked all around the world, she’s written two books (Managing the Matrix and The HardTalk Handbook) on workplace communication and what’s needed to succeed.

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