7 tips to help you gain work experience and force graduate recruiters to sit up and take notice
We’ve all been there. We’ve all experienced The Great Graduate Conundrum: you can’t get hired unless you have experience; but to gain experience, you must of course first be hired. It is a horrible circle, and it is hard to resist the following simple conclusion: graduate recruiters demand work experience…
… or do they?
In this blog, I will show you why this is among the most common misconceptions surrounding the graduate job market. I present to you seven tips to help you solve The Great Graduate Conundrum and gain work experience.
The first four will be tips for immediate self-improvement, while the latter three will discuss where to look to gain work experience after graduation.
Embrace the power of the graduate
First, allow me to state the obvious: you are a graduate. It can be tempting for the cynical graduate to look at him or herself and utter the following despondent cries:
“I don’t feel that I could contribute to the world of work – what do I know?”
“I’m not top of my class, so how can I hope to get a job?”
“My maths is terrible, and I’m not a science or data person, so why on earth would a successful company want me?”
Luckily, you needn’t worry. A graduate is a very particular breed, with very particular, positive, characteristics. For example, respected job search engine and review site Glassdoor offers the following reasons why hiring graduates would benefit any company:
- Graduates are desperate to learn and progress
- They have a different, innovative outlook
- They are willing to adapt
- They are cheaper to hire, and keen to prove themselves
If you’re currently screaming at the screen that you are all of the above, fantastic. That wasn’t even the good news. As well as these salutary aspects of being a graduate there is one supreme, transcendent reason why you, dear reader, should be very excited, and it’s the very thing that graduates are hardly ever told:
Companies and employers are desperate for precisely the skills most graduates aren’t even aware they have!
Read on for a glimpse of your true potential.
#2: Have confidence in who you are, and what you can offer
Academic achievement is fantastic.
But the majority of graduate recruiters aren’t trembling with excitement to hire the latest virtuoso biologist, nor are they climbing over one another to snaffle the historian whose first-class dissertation on Abyssinian courtship rituals will go down in legend and song.
What they want could hardly be more simple: a pleasant, likeable, person who can DEMONSTRATE SKILLS.
What are these skills? My bet is that you already have some without even knowing it.
#3: Know what the ‘career skills’ are
The career skills, often referred to as the ‘transferable skills’ or ‘core competencies’ are the skills that are often overlooked by results-driven graduates, but which are essential to the functioning of any enterprise.
It can be helpful to think of them as the human skills that have developed within us as we have made our way through life, often without realising. They can be:
- Profound, for example, an ability to build lasting relationships, or an ability to empathise with and help someone in need
- Commonplace and quotidian, for example setting and meeting goals, prioritising tasks, or meeting and greeting people
- Analytic, for example making a prediction based on information, or researching a given topic to complete a task
- Administrative, for example, receiving and managing ‘phone calls, or managing spreadsheets
‘So what?’ you might ask. ‘Anyone can do those.’ Exactly. This is my point. Anyone can do them. But what not just anyone can do is provide clear, systematic evidence of which skills they have, and how and when they have demonstrated them. This is the key to making any job application.
Companies aren’t all looking for executives when they hand out work experience or entry-level jobs. As I mentioned earlier, they want personable people who can confidently state their skills, and give examples of when they have used them, and to what end.
This brings me to my next tip.
(Incidentally, if you’re still slightly confused about the transferable skills, the balance offers a great definition and examples of transferable skills)
#4: Know how to demonstrate the skills
I was astounded when I discovered that graduate recruiters are not exclusively looking for devastating numeracy and analytical skills.
In fact, when I looked back over my life to find my own transferable skills, I realised not only that the following things were extremely highly regarded skills in themselves, but that I could actually demonstrate them:
- Working collaboratively towards a common goal – at university, I raised funds for and performed with the university’s Shakespeare Society. We aimed for £5,000, and thanks to our efforts we surpassed that easily
- Speaking and communication – At a part-time job, my responsibility was to receive ‘phone calls and take messages. I thought nothing of it, but it’s no small thing. It demonstrates an ability to communicate with a wide range of people that is essential, whether in the post room or the executive suite
The likelihood is that you are sitting on a wealth of skill and talent, but you don’t know how to express them for an employer. If you’ve ever had a part-time job, whether at school or university, that will be a skills goldmine. If, on the other hand, you preferred to focus on your studies rather than work, no problem. I’ll also discuss how best to demonstrate skills gathered at university.
First, though, a very important point. When providing evidence, quantify wherever possible. Graduate recruiters don’t want to have to infer your skills from your writing or to read between the lines to judge your ability. Make life easy for them by answering the following questions for every skill:
- When have I demonstrated this skill?
- What did you do?
- What was the result? For example, what was the result of collaboration? What happened as a result of your efforts? I quantified my aim above with the £5,000 figure, and then stated the result: we surpassed it
Skills From Part-Time Work
Think back to the work you have had. How did you contribute? Now is not the time to be bashful. Ask yourself what the organisation would have missed, or what valuable thing would not have occurred, had you not been there.
For example, a common source of part-time work is bar work. Perhaps your organisational skills led to a more efficient method of taking stock, or meant that you realised which drinks weren’t selling, which enabled you in turn to advertise deals on them.
Perhaps you observed that something as apparently mundane as the layout of the bar wasn’t maximising your sales, and a slight tweak helped boost them.
Or perhaps your sunny disposition enabled you to work effectively with whomever else was behind the bar.
Whatever the skill you can demonstrate, answer the following questions: When? What? What was the result?
You already have many skills for your future job. Be concise, and give evidence.
If you need some inspiration, take this ‘skills audit’ from CareerSmart. It is a series of questions that should generate some thoughts.
Skills From University
The same process should be applied here, because the fundamental skills are the same. University simply offers different opportunities to display them.
Almost everything you did at university enabled you to develop and display a skill. Whether they were personal skills developed through your degree, like organisation and analysis, or whether they were collaborative skills developed in sports teams or societies.
Whatever the skills, make sure you apply the same process: When? What? What happened?
A helpful approach to analysing the skills developed at university is to imagine your time at university as though it had been a job, and you had been an employee. How would you evaluate yourself? Which skills did you develop?
If you’re stuck, there is a fantastic post at graduatejobs.com about identifying your skills at university.
We’ve discussed how best to set out your stall to graduate recruiters. It’s time to think about types of work, and where to look for that graduate job.
How to Gain Work Experience After Graduation
Now that you have a good knowledge of your skills and how you can demonstrate them, internships will be easier to approach.
Internships are a great introduction to the world of work.
They are confidence builders and enable you to prove to an employer that you are capable of bridging the gap between university and employment, often in less stressful conditions.
How to find them
- Job sites often have internship sections, for example, this helpful page on TargetJobs. The largest companies, such as Amazon and KPMG, will advertise their positions on these sites
- Begin to think about the contacts you might have in your life. Do your parents know anyone who may be willing to help? What about former employers, or even professors? You’d be amazed at how willing people are to help. Moreover, this is a perfect opportunity to begin to develop networking skills
- University Careers Service. Considered passé by some, you’re unlikely to find a more helpful port of call – these things are devoted to helping you progress! If you can approach them armed with evidence of all of your new skills, they’ll be able to pair you with the best and most suitable opportunities
- Be proactive – create your own luck! It’s no secret that internships don’t grow on trees. But that doesn’t mean you can’t grow your own tree. Officially, there may only be a few thousand internships advertising at any given time. Unofficially, the opportunities are infinite. Watch this video to find out how you can create your own opportunities:
#6: Work Shadowing
Work shadowing involves observing a professional carrying out the duties of their job. It can be a great opportunity to work out whether a particular line of work might be suitable to you.
If you have a vague idea that marketing, for example, might be up your street, without being quite sure why, then observing a marketing professional go about his or her day would be an excellent way to gain clarity.
First, there is one important point to make: unlike internships, opportunities to shadow are rarely advertised. Indeed, they don’t really exist until you have made an inquiry yourself. Pursuing shadowing opportunities thus takes persistence and good use of networks.
Luckily, these are both essential skills in themselves, so why not put them to use? Here are three suggestions as to where to look:
- Personal Research – By far the best method, and the one that will improve your skills the most, is personally researching and approaching companies that interest you. A polite and professional request to observe the inner workings of a company, along with demonstrable interest in the company, will be impressive. SMEs (small-to-medium sized enterprises) are the ones to approach here, as they often rely on unofficial approaches, and rarely advertise such opportunities
- Network – Don’t be afraid to bend the ear of anyone you know; family, friends, university careers departments, former employers. Because it is rarely advertised, work shadowing is often confirmed by word of mouth, or by speculative application
- Social Media – It might sound strange, but the most effective means of keeping up with the opportunities offered by companies is by following them on their various social media pages. Anything that a company does on social media provides an opportunity to react, and to prove that you’re on the ball. You can begin a speculative cover letter by referencing something you have seen on Facebook or Instagram, for example.
#7: Knowledge Transfer Partnership
Finally, if you’re still unsure how to bridge the gap between academia and the world of work, a Knowledge Transfer Partnership may be the thing for you.
These fantastic programmes are unique, three-pronged collaborations that bring together graduates, innovative business, and academic institutions.
The aim is to allow talented graduates to put their academic knowledge to use in powering real-world business innovation together with companies of every size, from small businesses to Unilever and Rolls Royce.
For information on how to apply, visit Knowledge Transfer.
A final word: How to Gain Work Experience After Graduation
Have you ever glanced at LinkedIn and come away feeling good about yourself? Neither have I. After a quick browse, it can feel as though you’ll never amount to anything if you haven’t started a bank or revolutionised an industry before your umbilical cord has even been cut.
Hopefully, this blog has shown you that as a graduate, far from being useless, you are an untapped resource. The question is, who will be the first to realise it?
Written by Tim Kingston