Make the most of work experience, without being exploited

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Work experience placements have been getting bad press recently.

Stories in the media have highlighted instances of people being exploited in unpaid internship schemes, made to do menial tasks with little promise of real experience and lacking the incentive for the future career progression they’re striving for.

Yet it is worth noting that the majority of work experience is only a good thing.

“With an increasing number of employers filling their vacancies with students who have worked with them via an internship or other work experience, these often play an integral role at the beginning of your career and look great on a CV,” says London School of Economics careers consultant Laura-Jane Silverman.

But as Silverman points out, not all work experience situations go the right way. “It’s very normal to emerge from a placement with a completely different impression of the company than you had at the outset. This is not negative, but actually very useful as it should go some way in helping you decide on the next steps.”

But what if, during a placement, you feel like you’re being taken for granted; for example, you feel as though you were promised more exposure to the business operations than you’re getting; or you’re only being tasked with duties that differ to your expectations and what the company offered.

Knowing your value and having confidence in your abilities is a key first step. “The best way to avoid being exploited is to make sure you know your own value,” says Ben Rosen, CEO of Inspiring Interns, a company that links people with work experience opportunities across the UK.

“The minute you’re made to feel like you’ve got no option, you can be open to abuse by the wrong sort of employer. Keep in touch with your own value in the marketplace, and make sure your key skills are up to date.”

Rosen points out that if you feel like things aren’t going well in a work experience placement, step back and try to work out why it might be happening. Don’t assume it’s your fault, but likewise don’t initially assume it’s anyone else’s. “It could be an issue with something you’re doing that seems unrelated, or could have nothing to do with you at all. The better you understand the situation, the better placed you are to deal with it.”

One problem when you start to feel unhappy in the workplace is that your ability to work suffers. “Remember that if you are doing great work, you’ll be making your boss look good and the load may start to lighten as your contribution to the company is recognised,” says Rosen.

Don’t give in easily. Corporations, small and large, can often be intimidating, after all they’re living and breathing by their ability to make a profit and maintain a viable business. So it’s to your benefit to find ways to stand out from the crowd. There’s always the chance that if you surprise yourself and your boss, the problems may stop.

However, it’s always important to recognise when these problems become unresolvable, says Rosen. “Often you can work past difficulties that seem insurmountable, but know at what point it’s right to walk away.”

If you find you’re in a position where you’ve tried everything you can to resolve a situation, then make sure you know your employee rights; talk to the manager and HR and deal with the problem head on. “Know that you can always walk away if you don’t think things will be resolved,” says Rosen.

Having said that, a tough skin in business is a good thing to have. If you’ve a bad experience with a company, don’t necessarily write off the entire industry, says Silverman: “Question whether the experience was firmly rooted in this business or whether it might be the same in similar companies. If you have a strong manager with whom you feel you can talk through your situation, book in a meeting with them and discuss your progress in a measured, calm manner – it’s really refreshing to get a more objective take on the issue and they’ll hopefully come up with a solution that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. If you aren’t able to share your issues with anyone, make a judgement call on whether you can sit out the rest of the placement and learn from the experience.”

Top tips on enjoying work experience

Work experience can offer a foot in the door into your aspired industry; they can prove you’ve had first-hand experience of the working world and they can help you understand where you best fit into a business. They can also suggest commitment to a sector or career path and prove you have the basic skills required to apply for further roles.

1. The key is to make the most of your internship. The time you spend there is likely to whizz by. So, from day one it’s important to offer your services as much as possible.

2. Gauge the office culture and if you think your managers are open to you taking on more responsibility, step up to the challenge – it’s a great learning experience and if your employers see you as a useful member of the team, they’ll be more likely to give you a glowing reference, or even a job.

3. If you’re working in an open plan office, listen to conversations – it’s a great way to pick up important information and learn how professionals conduct themselves in different scenarios.

Photo: Igne Alisauskaite is a member of the KPMG 360 apprenticeship program which allows apprentices to work in a variety of departments in the organisation while completing an AAT qualification. 

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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