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Learning from work experience

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What is work experience?

Work experience is experience of the workplace you gain prior to graduating and starting your career. It can be incidental to your study (and probably supporting it in the case of part-time work) or intrinsic to it, as when the course requires you to do a placement or a sandwich year in industry, possibly with some sort of credit-bearing project work attached.

Workplace experience will complement your academic studies by providing another way of learning outside the classroom. It will also provide you with crucial knowledge, skills and personal attributes that employers look for. Indeed, in some countries such as the UK, even the brightest students find it hard to get work without having had some work experience.

A degree alone is not enough. Employers are looking for more than just technical skills and knowledge of a degree discipline. They particularly value skills such as communication, team-working and problem solving. Job applicants who can demonstrate that they have developed these skills will have a real advantage."

– Digby Jones: Director-General, Confederation of British Industry, Foreward to Prospects Directory 2004/5.

There are a number of different types of work experience, as follows:

  • Part of a sandwich course with an industrial placement. Many vocational courses, such as publishing, hotel and catering, and even business studies, include a year’s relevant placement in industry. The placement is organized by the university and the student will retain contact with their tutor and often produce work which is credited to the degree.
  • A shorter work placement, which is also part of a course of study and arranged by the university, may focus on a particular project such as designing a web site for the company.

Shell Step (http://www.shellstep.org.uk/) is a UK-based programme which offers a range of specific project based work, for example one student on an international business degree course helped a company specializing in child safety devices break into the US market, while another worked on a rebranding exercise for an IT and communications specialist.

  • Internships, commonly over the summer break and lasting 6 to 12 weeks, involving placement within a particular organization.
  • Work shadowing, when student ‘shadows’ an experienced professional.
  • A wide range of other possibilities, including part-time paid work and voluntary work.

Benefits of work experience

There are many benefits of work experience and we list them below, before going on to look at how some of them may form part of the learning experience.

  • It provides a different perspective and a context for academic learning, an opportunity to put theory into practice.
  • It helps you develop ideas for final year projects, if such are part of your degree.
  • It offers opportunity to earn (sometimes – note that work experience can also be unpaid) and hence reduce debt.
  • It will enhance employability by:
    – Helping you work on a whole range of employment skills, from learning about and adapting to workplace culture to time management and teamwork.
    – Offering you the opportunity to network
    – In some cases, rehiring you after graduating.
  • It will help you develop your chosen career but giving you a chance to see how different aspects of it work, for example you may get the opportunity to see how marketing works differently from sales.
  • It will help you develop personally.

Areas of learning

As will be clear from the above, there are many learning opportunities inherent in work experience. Broadly speaking, they can be put into the following categories.

Application of academic learning

Work experience offers the opportunity of applying subject specific theoretical knowledge to a real life situation. You have learnt how to apply your critical skills to journal articles, text books, case studies, lectures etc. Now you are experiencing a real life case study: how does it relate to what you have read? Can you draw from your reading suggestions for improvement? Does it make you see the literature and theoretical background differently? Does it make you want to go back and re-read the literature, perhaps exploring other authors?

You may be applying a particular technical skill which you learnt at college: Are your skills at the right standard? How does what you are required to do differ from what you learnt? Are you using the same equipment and techniques? You should not automatically assume that what you do in the workplace is right and what you learnt at college is wrong: workplace practice differs and there may be no one right way; you need to reflect on the differences and what you can learn from other ways of doing things.

One particular way in which you can apply your workplace practice to your academic learning is if you have to write a final year project or dissertation. Whether you are doing a specifically vocational degree or a more general one in business studies, you will need a project with a strong practical application, and you may find that a particular company project can be the basis for your dissertation. That way you will not only achieve an academic goal but also help the company concerned.

Employability skills

A good period of work experience will greatly increase the knowledge, personal attributes and skills that will make employers want to employ you, including:

  • Team working – you may have had the experience of working in groups on assignments, but most workplaces are built on teams and you need to learn to work well with other people and value each others’ strengths and contribution.
  • Communication – you will have to learn to communicate clearly and succinctly both in writing and orally, often making quick points in the cut and thrust of meetings.
  • Interpersonal skills – working with people at all levels.
  • Planning, organizing and time management – not only do you have to get to and leave work at set times but you will also have to learn to juggle different priorities and work on several projects simultaneously.
  • Problem-solving and decision-making – you won’t always be able to rely on other people to tell you what to do! It is important to be able to act on your own initiative.
  • Numeracy and IT literacy – both are important skills, along with oral and written communication.
  • Ability to appear self confident – students may appear diffident at college, and their tutors take this as a sign of humility, or not notice if they produce good work. However, in the business world diffidence may be misinterpreted as failure to engage.
  • Negotiation skills – for example, over conflicting priorities, or if there is a particular way in which you want the organization to help you achieve a learning objective.
  • Ability to understand, and adapt to, the workplace culture, as well as the particular demands it places upon you.
  • Increase in commercial awareness by understanding management practices and the way organizations work. In particular, how are decisions made and who holds the power? What are the main factors in the company’s external environment, e.g. clients, competitors, that affect its products and performance? What is the company culture, and how can you fit in? Are there specific cultural differences which you need to be aware of?

Professional development

A specific work placement is a chance to gain more insight into your chosen field. You will be exposed to modern techniques and industry practices. You will also have a chance to gain more insight into an area of work that attracted you – is it really all you have imagined? Would you like to work in this type of organization or this corner of your chosen field, or do you want to get more experience somewhere else? Remember too that through the workplace there will be access to professional associations, and you should try to get to their meetings.

An important lesson is how to network, which will prove invaluable not only in getting your first job but also throughout your career. Study opportunities not only in your organization but also through meetings with clients, and professional organizations as mentioned above.

Personal development

Work experience provides an important opportunity to grow personally. If you can achieve some of the employability skills listed above, as well as greater awareness of your chosen area, you will become more self disciplined and self confident. Having to subject yourself to the rigours and responsibilities of the workplace as opposed to the peace of the library and lecture room, you will become more mature. Teachers on industry-linked sandwich courses comment on how the students they say goodbye to at the end of the second year are not the same ones that come back at the beginning of the fourth year!

Ways of ensuring learning

Whether or not your work placement is a success depends upon you, your employer and your higher education institute (HEI). If the work experience is part of a course, the HEI will probably have negotiated the placement with the employer, and will help you prepare your CV and look for a suitable placement. This can help make the experience a quality one, and ensure that the employment tasks can be structured around specific learning outcomes, which you as the student should be aware of. The employer in turn needs to be aware that they are not just employing someone who can answer the phone and do photocopying, but who will undertake particular projects and who is working to specific outcomes.

Preparing and supporting the learner

Your tutor should brief you not only on learning outcomes, but also on the particular style of learning that you need to adopt (see below). He or she should also support you throughout the process, visiting you at the workplace and helping you to understand how your learning relates to your goals (these visits may or may not be part of a formal assessment). The close of the work experience should also be marked by a debriefing to help you reflect on whether or not the goals have been achieved.

Becoming a reflective learner

You will also need to adapt to learning in a situation where the learning objectives are not always made explicit, in contrast to a class or lecture where these are normally articulated. Reflective learning is the conscious process of analysing and learning from what one has done or is doing, and is shown in the ability to:

  • learn from a wide range of situations, not just ones where you are being taught
  • articulate what that learning is, and how you can apply it
  • reflect on how that learning relates to other learning, and if relevant to a theoretical perspective
  • apply the learning to your own self development
  • apply previously acquired learning (e.g. what you have gained from your studies) to your work situation.

You will also need to examine yourself critically and see yourself as an employer would, using the same critical thinking skills you should have acquired in reading texts. This means identifying your own strengths and weaknesses, including areas for improvement.

Students studying for degrees in the Department of Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism Management at Oxford Brookes University in the UK frequently do a work placement. This has specific learning outcomes relating to knowledge and understanding, personal development, and the development of skills associated with learning at work. The knowledge and understanding is articulated in specific questions, such as What are the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and how can the company be improved? What is the organization doing to encourage cultural diversity? Students undertake a small project, and need to relate the question to academic theory.

Students are expected to use the placement as an opportunity for self development and need to develop reflective thinking skills, reflecting on situations and relating them to theory. There are documented appraisals at several points of the placement, culminating in an essay which describes how they have changed and what management skills they have acquired. They are also expected to negotiate learning agreements with their employer, relating to small bundles of learning about particular management issues.

Documentation

You will find it easier to analyse what you have learnt if you keep a written record. If a work placement is part of your course there will probably be particular requirements, in the form of:

  • a specific piece of work, for example a report, an essay, or project
  • an ongoing record of development, in the form of a log, portfolio etc.

Students at Oxford Brookes are required to keep a reflective log, in which they put notes about any learning which relates to knowledge and understanding or personal development.

Students studying on a graphic media degree at a further education college in the UK were required to produce a report at the end of their placement profiling the company and their job within it, describing their learning and what they gained from the experience. To aid them complete the report, they had to keep a log book.

Whether or not your degree has a specific requirement, keeping some sort of daily record of what you have done, with associated learning and evidence, is useful. It can be in the form of a log, etc., and will help you produce written course work as well as articulate your skills for future employers.