Stuck in a loop of not being able to get experience because you have no experience? We've asked the experts how to break free.
Of everyone we surveyed who are not currently in a graduate job, 34%, the highest number, selected "I don't think I have enough experience" as their greatest obstacle to employment.
With the help of Shaun Foster, Buying and Merchandising Recruiter for Next, and Alison Poulton, Talent Acquisition Specialist at BT, we’re going to unpick the experience obstacle. We’ll explore why some companies look so favourably upon work experience, how you can still get a job if you have none, and detail some practical steps you can take to boost the Experience section of your CV right now.
Why some companies expect you to have work experience for graduate positions
Both Shaun and Alison are unsurprised that students and graduates are worried about how a lack of experience affects their graduate employment prospects. Though neither Next nor BT expect a relevant degree or work experience for their graduate roles, the benefit of having some work experience on your CV when you come to apply for graduate jobs is undeniable.
“Some roles can be very competitive and the experience of a work placement year is such an advantage,” Shaun says. He believes that a graduate with internships listed on their CV is likely to have “increased knowledge of the role, familiarity with working within a team environment, and a higher level of maturity,” compared to someone who has no work experience.
He adds that he would always encourage students to seek work experience, saying, "it will help you understand thought processes for the role and provide you with real life examples for use in interviews. It will also help the candidate realise if the role is something they want to dedicate their career to.”
Alison says it’s all about the confidence you gain from doing internships or placements – confidence that will help you succeed at interview stage.
Graduate candidates who have more experience behind them may also be seen as a more ‘certain’ hire. They have a proven track record, references to vouch for their professionalism, and they have demonstrated prior commitment to and passion for a sector. From a hiring manager’s perspective, experienced candidates may be more likely to understand what they’re getting into when starting a job and are therefore less likely to leave after a few months – costing the company time and money training and hiring their replacement.
Work experience alone won’t get you anywhere
With 73% of 2016 graduates leaving university with a 2:1 or above, work experience seems to many like a means of differentiating yourself from the competition – particularly if you studied a broad subject that doesn’t lead you down a specific career path.
However, Alison questions: “If students and graduates feel that they can stand out from the crowd by gaining work experience, how does an employer then differentiate between everyone who has gained work experience?”
This is why BT’s graduate hiring process focuses on each candidate as an individual, assessing how well their values align with the company’s own, and how they could have a positive impact on the organisation.
Alison advises that what will really set you apart from other candidates is your personality and how well you communicate your experiences and interests in interviews.
Experience does not speak for itself, it’s up to you to use it. Alison says: “If some individuals are getting feedback that their lack of work experience has impacted on their performance in the process, then it may be that it is how they are performing rather than the absence of the experience that is coming across.”
Therefore, it’s less about having work experience to tick a box on a hiring manager’s set of criteria and more about demonstrating the skills and qualities an employer may expect of someone who has benefited from work experience. It then follows that if you’re full of confidence, knowledge and are clearly excited about the role at interview – that’ll speak louder than someone who has some experience, without the same personality shining through.
Focus on the overall package: your potential and passion for an industry
Two of the key benefits graduates take from having some work experience behind them are increased confidence and knowledge of an industry – things you can achieve without having formal experience.
In lieu of an internship, you can use LinkedIn to network with relevant people in your industry – they will, by and large, be happy to answer your questions about their job if you reach out. Shaun also advises that LinkedIn is a great tool for accessing work experience opportunities at small to medium sized companies.
You can keep up with news and trends in the industry you’re interested in via relevant publications and influencers, do free online courses to add to your skillset, volunteer, or ask to shadow someone you admire for a couple of days and help out. All of these steps will go towards making you feel more knowledgeable and confident throughout the hiring process and enable you to communicate that in your applications.
Ultimately, when it comes to the experience obstacle, you can’t win them all. There are going to be some cases where an employer doesn’t have the budget to train someone who is completely inexperienced in their sector, but that will not always be the case.
If you don’t have experience right now – focus on what you can control going forward: whether that’s adding to your CV, or working out how you can make yourself stand out regardless.
As Alison and Shaun explain, work experience can be advantageous in assuring an employer of your track record, but showing you have potential and enthusiasm to learn is just as, if not more, important.