Work experience is an important factor in helping graduates get the job they want, according to Aoife Kilpatrick, graduate recruitment manager, PA Consulting Group. In today's competitive environment, employers look for graduates that are able to demonstrate commercial skills, as well as having a strong academic background.

What kinds of experiences are available?

Work experience can take a variety of forms - it can be part of a degree, for example a sandwich course, during which an undergraduate will take a year out and join a firm, where they will be treated like a normal employee. 

Work experience can also take the form of a course-related project, a summer internship, work shadowing or an on-campus project where they can develop commercial skills.

Benefits to students

Apart from looking good on a candidate's CV, work experience is an opportunity to gain valuable experience in a real work environment. It is a chance to think about future career paths and try out some options first hand, as well as gaining insight into a specific organisation.

These opportunities also help develop awareness of professional codes of behaviour and the world of work, and allow you to build a network of contacts in your industry of choice.

Work experience can make a candidate look more attractive to employers, by demonstrating a proven interest and commitment to that particular career. 

It may make a candidate more rounded, for example if a candidate has studied a technical discipline it will offer the opportunity to develop softer skills or vice versa. It will also provide candidates with some good practice for those all-important application forms and interviews.

Candidates will feel more confident in their own skills and abilities when they go for job interviews if they have practised their skills in a professional environment.

It is important to get the most out of a work placement. If a placement student shows the right enthusiasm and determination in the job, they could end up being offered a permanent graduate position at the end of the year. 

A placement can also be beneficial to a candidate on their return to university.  As well as gaining valuable commercial insight into their area of study it may also have helped with broader skills such as prioritisation or presentation skills.

Benefits to employers

Most employers actively encourage work placement opportunities. They are often used as a way of screening students for the following year's graduate jobs - the industrial placement allows an employer to see an individual at work and assess their abilities as a potential employee.

It will develop potential future employees - making candidates more mature, with good abilities in team-working, communication and interpersonal skills, as well as an awareness of the workplace culture.

When to start thinking about work experience

The earlier a graduate starts planning their work experience the better. This could be towards the end of their second year, if not earlier.

How do students find work experience?

There are various sources that students can use and one of the best sources available is the university careers service - the careers advisers are sent vacancy information from employers around September time.

Alternatively, students can use their industrial placement tutors, or apply direct to companies - most have an online application form. But students shouldn't constrain themselves to formalised work experience programmes.

If you know someone who works in the industry or job that you are interested in, contact them to see whether you can get some informal work experience.

Aoife Kilpatrick is graduate recruitment manager at PA Consulting Group. She has specialised in graduate recruitment for six years.

Comment by companies

The following gives an insight into what you can expect from a placement scheme as well as some of the benefits of doing one.

Internship placements are an extension of our graduate recruitment programme. They are an excellent way of attracting students who are in the early stages of deciding which career path to follow. Our experience has shown that vacation students provide excellent resources and make a significant contribution to projects.

Placements typically last around eight weeks and allow students to gain exposure to a real work environment. They also provide an opportunity for undergraduates to 'try before they buy', whilst developing their technical and business skills. They will also pick up transferable skills, such as teamwork and time management, which all help when completing job applications or attending interviews.

Students are trained in an area that interests them, without the commitment of a full-time job, but with the rewards that they deserve. In our case, this is £1,300 per month, subsidised accommodation in the company house, paid holidays and team morale events.
Alison Hannant, recruitment manager, Data Connection

When we talk to our business about the key skills they look for in graduates it is work experience which comes out on top. At LogicaCMG we recognise that we can play a part in helping future graduates to obtain the necessary experience by offering placements.

Placement students have continually provided us an excellent pool of talented workers who are enthusiastic, have up to date technical skills and are keen to learn more. Many of our placement students receive offers to join our graduate programme before they return to university for their final year. This presents a great campus marketing opportunity for us.

In an increasingly competitive job market for graduates the importance of experience gained through an industrial placement cannot be overstated. A placement will provide you with real experience - real projects, real clients, real teams.

This experience will provide a context for learning in your final year, help to clarify your career choices and perhaps even secure you a job after graduation. Even if you do not rejoin the company after you graduate, the experience you have gained will give you many examples you can use to enhance your CV and discuss at interviews.
Mark Donmall, graduate recruitment co-ordinator, LogicaCMG