Over the past year, I’ve come to think about work experience in a whole new light. Until 2017, my work experience (for work experience’s sake) consisted of a one-week school-arranged placement at a local newspaper in Gravesend. It was my only experience of going somewhere simply to learn.
Don’t get me wrong, ever since I could work, I have worked, and I’ve learnt a lot along the way. In my early years, this included bar work, selling shoes, cleaning hospitals, collecting data door to door, and even picking and sorting mushrooms. I did it all when I was young, but I selected these roles and experiences predominantly to earn money. Decades down the line, I recognise that it’s the experience that was valuable, not the paltry pay packet. These experiences helped shape me. They helped me to work out what I liked about work, and what I didn’t like. Looking back, I don’t think I realised the significance of that data at the time. It was a means to move forward, earn money, improve my life.
Now, in 2017, I think I may have missed a trick. I moved on too quickly from work experience for work experience’s sake. I wanted to earn money, but if I had sought out work experience to answer questions about myself and where I might fit, I would have been richer, wage or no wage.
At this stage, I should give a little context to my revelation. Last year, I started a part-time MA in career management at Canterbury Christ Church University. I’ll tell you about my motivation to enrol, another time. My two-year postgraduate diploma will give me the qualification in career guidance (QCG) and, to gain my QCG, I need to complete and evidence 30 days of careers-related work placement. At first, this seemed like a chore. How on earth would I fit it all in alongside my studies and my business?
As the months have passed, I have filled up my placement log and changed my mind. This ‘work experience’ for work experience’s sake has been a bit of a revelation. Every time I visit a school, FE college, or job centre, attend a conference or network meeting, or shadow a careers professional, I grow. I grow my awareness of myself: what I like and what I don’t, where my skills might fit and where they probably won’t. I grow my awareness of the potential opportunities available in my field, of the different environments and formats of careers work. I grow my knowledge, too, by applying my new-found skills in practical contexts. I also grow my network. Over the past few months, I have met some inspiring and respected careers practitioners. I have been amazed at their generosity in sharing their time and knowledge to help me grow.
I no longer see work experience as a chore. I see it as a golden opportunity, far more valuable than a quickly forgotten wage packet. I still believe that all work experience (paid or unpaid) is worthwhile, but I can now appreciate the value of doing something to learn not earn. If I had a time machine, I’d visit my teenage self and tell her to seek out work experience to answer questions, not increase my bank balance. The wages always burned a hole in my pocket anyway.
And (personal revelation!), work experience is not just for the young. It can be useful at any age, helping you to work out what you like and what you don’t, where you see yourself and where you don’t in a future work environment. Whether it’s a formal placement or an informational interview, building knowledge by listening, seeing, and sensing can support an informed career decision. Admittedly, time can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort.