How to get the best work experience

The strangest request I’ve ever had for a work placement was from a pupil who wanted to be a rollercoaster designer,’ reveals Roedean’s head of careers, Abra Reid. Fortunately, an old girl was able to put her in touch with an actual rollercoaster designer. No matter how unusual the request, Miss Reid is emphatic about the vital role of work experience. ‘It’s essential, particularly in a tight employment market. If you’re going to be successful, you need to have work experience. Employers expect it-if you don’t have it, you’re unlikely to be hired.’

James Virgin, manager at the Harrow Association for alumni of Harrow School, who works with Harrow’s careers master Damian Cox to organise 90 placements a year for current pupils and recent leavers, is equally convinced that the practice ‘helps boys to stand out from the crowd’. ‘Some 36% of this year’s graduate jobs at Britain’s leading companies will go to applicants who’ve already had work experience with them, so it certainly ups your chances,’ he says. ‘Organising work experience is one of the most important aspects of our programme at the Harrow Association-it proves valuable to the boys for the rest of their lives.’

Undertaking work experience, especially when you’re unsure about your future career, can seem, at best, daunting and, at worst, dull. Not so, argues Lady Amabel Scott, 20, who enjoyed a spell at The Field when she was at St Mary’s School Ascot. ‘You hear all these terrible stories about work experience being deadly boring, but my time was far better than I expected. They gave me tasks to do that ended up in the magazine, which, at the age of 15, was thrilling,’ enthuses the Duke of Buccleuch’s youngest. ‘I was keen to be a writer at that point, and, as I love the countryside, The Field was a classic magazine for me to go to for experience.’

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When it comes to securing the best and most suitable placements for their pupils, both Roedean and Harrow make use of their networks. With a database of more than 1,300 old boys to turn to, Mr Virgin is adept at finding placements for Harrow’s Year 10 and sixth-form pupils. ‘Pupils come to see me and say, for example, “Can you help me get a week’s placement in investment banking?”. And I can usually help, as we have Old Harrovian contacts at companies such as UBS and Barclays.’

Although many boys’ top career choices include finance, property, law and medicine, engineering is becoming an increasingly popular option. ‘Six boys recently went to CERN near Geneva [home of the Large Hadron Collider] for a very successful week,’ recounts Mr Virgin. ‘And boys who are interested in working in the media have worked as runners on films and TV programmes. One boy was with [the cricket writer] Ivo Tennant at the media centre at Lord’s and others have worked with Johnno Spence [who runs a leading sports PR and marketing firm] on the racecourse.’

A database of willing contacts for the girls to choose from is equally important at Roedean. But this year, year 10 pupils will also benefit from a formal partnership with East Sussex County Council. ‘This is a great help to us, as the council is able to carry out health-and-safety assessments in regard to work placements and also verify public-liability insurance,’ says Miss Reid.

For those whose parents are trying to persuade them to do a vocational degree, work experience can help to determine whether or not they want to go down that route. ‘In some cases, work experience has given the boys an opportunity to realise that they don’t want to do a particular job after all,’ admits Mr Virgin. ‘Some are under pressure from their parents to get into the City or become a lawyer, and by doing a work placement, they at least get an inkling as to what doing that sort of job means.’

For Roedean’s Miss Reid, however, the experience youngsters gain from working in a professional environment means more than where they do it. ‘The job that they’re actually doing during work experience isn’t make or break in terms of their future career choices. It’s important that the girls are confident in the world of work and placements help to achieve that.’

This sentiment is certainly true for 20-year-old University of Leeds broadcast journalism student Helen Hoddinott. Having done stints at an advertising company and an NHS speech therapist while at The May-nard School in Devon, she landed the work experience placement of a lifetime during her gap year. Thanks to family friends and contacts, she travelled to Manila to work in the communications department of a concrete company, at the Philippine Daily Inquirer and for the ABS-CBN TV channel. ‘It was a unique, eye-opening experience,’ admits Miss Hoddinott. ‘I did things there that I will probably never do again in my life.’

Use social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn-Hilary Benn’s office has confirmed the MP recently welcomed a youngster on work experience who’d been bold enough to ‘tweet’ asking for it. But, although she cites the Old Roedeanians’ Facebook page as a great place for her pupils to secure work placements, Miss Reid urges pupils to be careful about their own online image. ‘Being aware of what impression you’re giving through these sites is part of the transition from being a child to becoming an adult,’ she cautions. ‘I tell the girls they should start to think about building their own “brand”, and to consider how they may be perceived by future employers through their contributions to online forums. Employers do Google prospective employees-why wouldn’t you?’

There are also plenty of opportunities for working in the great outdoors. Estates such as Holkham in Norfolk accommodate child-ren from local schools on work placements with its team of gardeners. Champion National Hunt trainer Paul Nicholls is keen for youngsters to see the daily routine at his Somerset stables. ‘They don’t get to ride, but Paul thinks it’s important that year 10 pupils have the chance to shadow our staff and see how the yard works,’ says Lina Chadburn, the trainer’s accounts administrator.

The army offers would-be soldiers a five-day course at a training camp in their area. Generally involving a 1½-mile run (six times round the football pitch), an assault course, sleeping out overnight and firing guns in a simulator, these courses quickly establish whether or not pupils are serious. ‘They separate out those youngsters who have fantasised about a career in the army from those who are genuinely interested,’ says army careers advisor Maj Andrew Duncan. ‘Work experience is great because it assures us that those who want to join between the age of 16 and 18 with their parents’ permission have tried it and they like it. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.’

As ever, however, whether you want to be a land agent, a professional event rider or a rollercoaster designer, being enthusiastic is key. ‘It’s incredibly important to assume an entirely professional manner, be completely open to everything and say yes to every opportunity that comes your way,’ advises Miss Hoddinott, an aspiring broadcaster. ‘If you make an effort to fit in, you’ll feel that you’ve really gained something from the experience.’


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