What employers look for in a work experience candidate

aat comment

Speak to employers and you soon begin to realise that they’re looking for something special. They want to see that a candidate for a trainee position is bright, enthusiastic and willing to get stuck in.

‘We look for enthusiasm and a desire to do well in their chosen career,’ says Val Mitchell, group HR at MHA MacIntyre Hudson, an accountancy firm operating throughout England. ‘The technical aspects can be taught, but attitude is key. They will need to be diligent in their work and studies, but also need to be part of the team and someone who can build strong relationships.’

Like MHA Macintyre Hudson, PEM, an accountancy firm based in Cambridge, also offers AAT traineeships and work experience places, and, also being a client-oriented business, equally values the importance of relationship building. ‘A candidate can impress us by being able to prove that they can take an interest in people, that they’re not too introverted and enjoy being a team player,’ PEM HR administrator Felicity Shakespeare.

Considering that companies offering traineeships generally support your AAT studies until you qualify (after which you may well be encouraged to undertake ACCA, ACA or CIMA), provide study leave and materials, on-the-job mentoring, and CPD programmes post-qualification, it’s understandable that firms seek people they think will work hard, fit in well and bring something unique.

But how can you prove you have what it takes? How can you make a CV really stand out?

‘Without a shadow of a doubt, young people have to stand out from the crowd,’ says Cathy Earl, director of HR for Nielsen, a global consumer research firm.

‘They have to prove that they have something to bring to the business, that they’ve been involved in activities, such as volunteering or summer work, then use that to differentiate themselves from everybody else, many of whom will have similar CVs. This shows us that they’re prepared to have a go, to try different experiences, to drive activities forward for themselves and others.’

And while employers are not expecting the complete package when a candidate goes for interview, they do value the breadth of experience that extra curricular activities provide. ‘Candidates can learn teamwork, reliability, how to build working relationships and gain a good work ethic, among other things,’ says Mitchell. ‘Hopefully, through these, they will be more confident that they are choosing the right career path.’

The weekend job is more than just pocket money

Work experience of any variety is highly regarded, so don’t overlook your weekend job or the week work experience you did during GCSEs, they will have given you transferrable skills.

‘We’re less interested in where work experience happened and more focused on the skills and behaviours picked up during work experience,’ says Waite. ‘It’s really important for Grant Thornton that a candidate has some form of professional experience that they can draw upon, so I would encourage all young people to grab any opportunities to get experience with both hands.’

Better still why not try and get some accounting work experience with a local firm?

‘We offer work experience to those who have a genuine desire to go into accountancy,’ says Mitchell. ‘We expect candidates to apply the same importance to this as they would for a permanent position. We recognise that they possibly won’t have the same experience as others, but they can still show that they have been given responsibility, e.g. school prefect, part-time work etc. and can demonstrate teamwork, e.g. in sports, projects, etc. and have a good work ethic.’

If you’re fortunate enough to get a good work experience placement, it will be in your best interest to do all you can to get the most out of it. Be enthusiastic and don’t be afraid to ask questions,’ says Shakespeare. ‘It could give them a ‘step up’ when they apply for a traineeship with us.’

This is echoed by Mitchell: ‘They need to make sure they show that they’re interested and do everything to the best of their ability. They should ask questions, not just about what they are doing, but take the opportunity to speak to as many people as they can about the profession, training and what it’s like to be a trainee at our firm. If the work experience is successful, we would encourage those people to apply for a trainee position with our firm.’

USPs = skills

  • Sporting achievements = leadership, determination, teamplayer
  • Part-time jobs = business experience, teamwork, customer care, work ethic
  • Volunteering = motivated, open-minded, empathetic, passionate
  • School clubs = open-minded, curious, driven, creative
  • Youth = forward-thinking, up-to-date, tech-savvy

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

Related articles