Informal work experience
If it proves difficult to obtain a structured work experience placement what do you do? One approach might be to focus on what is the most important reason for seeking work experience. If it is to build your portfolio of transferable and commercial skills, then alternatives include employer led skills workshops (such as those organised by the Careers, Employability and Enterprise Centre), summer employment and active involvement in college and societies. If career exploration is your main motivation then it is possible to gain work experience of varying lengths and types by approaching organisations speculatively. The potential risk is that because you are not applying for a structured scheme the quality of your experience may not be as high. This should not however be seen as a deterrent and reinforces the need to be very focused when applying for speculative experience so that the employer is clear about your expectations. An employer who can see the potential of having you on placement, in terms of your skills, qualities and intelligence, is also much more likely to accommodate you on the grounds of 'added value'; in this respect it is essential that you market yourself effectively to organisations. Work experience is not only about what an employer can do for you but potentially what you can do for an employer!
How do I find informal work experience?
A simple starting point is to visit the websites of organisations that interest you. Although we associate internships with the large graduate companies, it is not uncommon for smaller or more specialist organisations to offer placements. They may not be the same length as some internships (10 - 12 weeks) and are unlikely to be salaried but will still offer a hugely valuable and structured experience. The vacancy section of this website also hosts some interesting work experience opportunities.
Just because an organisation isn't advertising work experience opportunities does not mean that they won't consider you. The key thing is to approach the organisation in an effective way. This is usually through a strong CV and cover letter; even though you are applying for what is in effect an unpaid opportunity it is essential to demonstrate to the organisation your interest in who they are and what they do. Submitting unsolicited CVs and cover letters to organisations of interest is a very standard approach to work experience; a slightly different approach is to telephone or email organisations before submitting your CV. The potential advantage of this is that you can quickly establish if work experience is an option and, if it is, who any correspondence should be directed to. This does make the process more time consuming but undoubtedly helps to demonstrate your motivation and initiative.
One of the challenges of making speculative applications is knowing who to apply to in the first place; this is particularly difficult if you do not have any strong career interests. If you do have ideas it is important to identify and prioritise organisations that reflect those interests and are located in a geographically convenient location. Business directories, such as Kompass, Thomson, Small Business Directory and Free Index, are a good starting point. Professional bodies and skills councils linked to particular career areas or sectors often have very useful employer directories; the Prospects website is the most expedient way to access the websites of professional bodies. The Careers Centre contains hard copy versions of a wide variety of employer directories and professional journals. If you are in the position of not having any strong career ideas, it is useful to research the main industries and employers in the regions in which you are most likely to undertake work experience. The Regional Development Agencies are a useful starting point in this respect as are the careers services of your local HE institutions. The LMI Future Trends website also offers excellent regional labour market information.
A key element to securing work experience is through contacts and effective networking. Obviously it is helpful if you know someone working in a particular industry but this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. The good thing is that contacts can be made in any career sector through a proactive approach. Having a contact is not a guarantee of work experience but at the very least it is a way of finding out more about someone's professional career. The Careers, Employability and Enterprise Centre has alumni and local employer contacts that existing students can contact. The University's alumni department also has a searchable database of Durham graduates on its website. Outside of Durham contacts, it is worth approaching the graduate recruitment teams of companies; they may be able to put you in touch with recent graduates. Some organisations, such as the NHS, employ champions to represent specific occupations. In professions such as psychology the associated professional body produces a directory of chartered practitioners. The primary message is to be flexible in your approach to making contacts and above all don't be deterred in contacting people and organisations.