I have long been an advocate for internships and work experience. My reasons are two-fold: First, work experience helps students to integrate theory and practice. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I have come to know from the experiences of hundreds of students that it facilitates a pathway into that all important first graduate job. However, despite this awareness, I had never sat on the other side of the table as an employer who has the unenviable task of sifting through hundreds of applications to choose the next set of potential graduate recruits. One large employer finally gave me this opportunity, and what a huge learning experience it has been for me!
One thing immediately became clear to me after I had gone through tens of applications, and reading through the various employment statements: Work experience neatly divides a pool of applicants into two: those who are in a ready state to be employed, and those who are not ready, despite their excellent academic performance.
Key on the employer’s list were the applicant’s leadership skills, awareness of business practices, and team-working skills. Applicants with little or no work experience struggled in all these categories, particularly in those instances where the application process required them to provide approapriate examples. At best, their examples looked unreal, contrived, wish-washy, and definitely out of this world. Some were hilarious, to the point of bordering on comedy. And comedy they would have been, except that these were applications from serious individuals who had spent four years in university, had attained good grades, and were looking for their first real jobs. Yes they had all graduated, yet quite a significant number of these applicants had no idea of what to expect in a job.
Another important lessson that I learnt is this: It pays to think back on what went well, and what went wrong in your work experience. For example, some of the applicants had clearly reflected on their experiences. In their applications, they discussed their personal achievements, honestly took stock of their shortcomings, and suggested what they could have done better, and how work processes could be improved to accomodate interns and early-stage employees. Some of these applications even went further to identify specific areas where the applicant thought they would need additional training and support. I realised that employing such an applicant would certainly make the job of everyone within the technical department that much easier, and it was quite clear that any of these applicants would be able to fit into the organisational work culture very well.
This was not so with the other applicants with substantial work experience. This category simply narrated what they had done. They gave no indication that they had thought about their work experiences, or that they had learnt anything at all. For most of the applications in this category, it appeared as if they had simply gone through the motions of work experience without engaging with their roles. They certainly looked disinterested and unmotivated. Perhaps this was down to inexperience in writing applications. But given the significant investments made by universities in student career services, this is quite difficult to believe. Whatever the reason, for this particular large employer, this simply reduced to: Who in their right mind would want to employ a disinterested, demotivated graduate employee?
If you are a student, the point to take home is simply this: Get a work placement while you can. Your future may depend on it. And when you get one, learn all you can from it. Learn about the role, and learn about yourself as well.
If you are an academic, the take-home point should be this: Make it a point to talk about work placements with your students at every conceivable moment. They may not yet appreciate it. But it matters, and if you care for the future of your students, just do it.
If you are an employer, the take-home point is this: Open up your work places to students. That may be the greatest service you can do to your bottom-line, your industry , and to society in general.