15 Key Skills You Can Gain from Work Experience in 2023

That internship or placement has a lot to offer!

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Key Skills You Can Gain from Work Experience

As a student, gaining work experience — whether it’s through an internship, a placement or a part-time position — is invaluable.

Indeed, once you graduate and head out into the world of work, you’ll already have gained the key transferable skills that employers look for. This, in turn, will differentiate you from the competition, making that all-important job search just a little less stressful.

So, instead of spending your summer chasing cocktails on a beach somewhere, maybe consider an internship or a placement in your industry. After all, it could be the most critical employment decision you ever make!

To illustrate how important work experience can be, we’ve compiled a list of its biggest benefits, including some of the most essential professional skills it can help you gain.

What is work experience?

In the simplest of terms, work experience refers to the experience you acquire in any professional work setting. All professionals, regardless their age and seniority, accumulate work experience over time.

When it happens at the beginning of people’s career, however, it exposes young or inexperienced adults to working independently as well as within a team; practicing their technical and soft skills; and putting their theoretical knowledge to practice for the first time.

In some parts of the world, “work experience” is used interchangeably with the term “work placements”. Many university students complete their “work experience” as part of their degree at a company they choose. This is similar to internships and apprenticeships, in that it provides fixed-term employment to students.

Benefits of work experience

Work experience can benefit your career in multiple ways. Let’s look at some below:

  • It boosts your confidence as a professional. The more tasks you take on, the faster and more accurate your execution will become. In turn, this increases your faith in your own ability, which is crucial in advancing your career down the line.
  • It allows you to acquire new skills and enhance existing ones. Hands-on experience is a surefire way to build a strong skill set. The longer you work, the more diverse and impressive your range of technical and soft skills will be.
  • It makes you more employable. Since work experience has the power to increase your confidence on a professional level and build your skill set, it automatically makes you a more desirable candidate in the eyes of recruiters.
  • It allows you to form connections. Working within a team is a great way to find mentors who can guide you as you progress, as well as people who might be able to open new doors for you in the future.
  • It lets you gain a greater understanding of the industry you plan to work in. There’s no better way to know what you’re signing up for than going for it!

15 skills you gain from work experience

Both technical and soft skills are crucial to your career success. Here are 15 workplace skills gained through work experience!

1. Self-reliance

To an extent, university also helps you develop self-reliance. You’re encouraged to find your own answers and build your own path. But applying this skill in an academic environment is entirely different from doing it in the workplace, and students develop a greater sense of self-awareness when there is more riding on their actions than just their own grades.

Demonstrating that you can be trusted to take on a task and complete it independently gives employers that warm fuzzy feeling. It will also help you to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and how you can cultivate them accordingly.

2. Interpersonal skills

The development of interpersonal skills is vitally important and, in reality, can only be effectively acquired in a workplace environment. Indeed, being able to communicate with clarity and diplomacy is an absolute requisite for any successful employee.

This doesn’t just mean being able to speak and listen, though. It’s essential to learn about the more subtle art of communication, such as knowing when to take the lead and when to take a step back; these are lessons that can only be learned and observed in a real-life work scenario. When you do eventually start working full-time, these are the key learnings that will arguably serve you best — so don’t ignore them.

3. Problem-solving skills

No employer wants a worker who continually hits brick walls in the course of their daily work; instead, they want somebody capable of using their initiative and seeking out their own solutions.

Luckily, being proactive and competent is a lot easier when you have some experience to back up your intuition — meaning that, from day one, you won’t constantly be leaning on the shoulders of your more experienced coworkers.

Getting into the habit of decision-making will serve you well further down the line, too. If you have any ambitions of working your way into a leadership position, for example, being able to work through issues with a degree of self-confidence will certainly make you a suitable candidate.

4. Commercial awareness

Although this can be industry-specific, gaining a general understanding of how organizations work and operate will make your transition into the workplace a lot easier.

Specifically, having first-hand knowledge of how your chosen industry works can give you not only a clearer indication of your suitability for it but also a working knowledge that you exhibit in your interviews. In broader terms, it can also help you realize how decisions are made and how a company’s culture can have an impact.

5. Maturity

You might not realize it at the time, but as a student, you’re still fairly immature. As wonderful as higher education is, you’re still somewhat restricted to the kind of people you associate with, including their backgrounds and motivations; your exposure to the “real world” may still be minimal.

Working in a team where your coworkers vary drastically in terms of age, experience and knowledge can significantly alter your perceptions and allow you to see things differently. This accelerated maturity will not only stand you in good stead for future employment but also greatly benefit your studies.

By having a more balanced viewpoint and starting to see the world outside your own educational bubble, your personal development will advance rapidly.

6. Teamwork

If you don’t play well with others, then you should probably consider starting your own one-person business. (Hint: we don’t actually mean that.)

Every single successful company in the world is built upon the core foundation of teamwork. You need to learn how to work within a group and recognize that the strengths and weaknesses of individuals are only effective when combined into something greater.

It’s also one of the few guaranteed interview questions you will face: “Give me an example of a time when you worked in a team”. If you have nothing to draw on in your answer other than group assignments or sports, you might be at a disadvantage to those who have completed quantifiable, real-time projects in a workplace environment.

7. Practical skills

Of course, each job role is different, and you will encounter different software systems and tools depending on your chosen profession. Some things will remain the same, regardless your industry, though.

For example, basic IT skills are expected of all new hires, but if you’ve never changed an email signature or converted data into a graph before, then where else are you likely to learn? You’ll also get highly valuable exposure to some important technical skills and tools, such as Microsoft Excel; becoming familiar with more advanced formulas and capabilities will certainly be useful.

If you want to refine your skills further and make the most out of your work experience, you could do so through an online course that will solidify your practical skills and knowledge. For example, embarking on a programming course while working for a tech company could take you one step further and help you stand out as a future job candidate, too.

8. Self-confidence and self-esteem

It’s long been accepted as a psychological truism that having a job boosts your sense of self-esteem and self-worth, making you a more confident and well-rounded individual. This is an essential component of your personal and professional growth.

It’s also something that others notice. At university, many students are unassuming and prefer to remain within their shell, but in interviews and indeed the workplace itself, this can be misinterpreted as a failure to engage or, even worse, as a sign that you don’t care. Doing something that you enjoy every day — and being good at it — will bring out the best of you.

9. Organization skills

University teaches organization skills to an extent, but it’s one thing to drop a grade because you didn’t give yourself enough time to finish a paper and quite another when entire teams of people across different departments (and external companies) are relying on you to submit a proposal on a deadline.

Even without resorting to such extreme examples, it’s a simple reality that the world of work is far more rigid than university in terms of time management. From something as simple as working out how to be on time every single day to learning how to deal with and prioritize the demands of different managers, right through to juggling multiple tasks and submitting everything on time and to a high standard, work experience teaches it all.

10. Networking

Just because you’re a three-month intern at the very bottom of the corporate “food chain”, it doesn’t mean that you can’t make an impression on others. This means having to learn how to create and develop professional relationships with coworkers, managers and even clients — a vitally important skill that you will use for the entire duration of your career.

It can also lead to a multitude of opportunities. If you impress with your attitude and your ability during those three months, then this could convert into a permanent job role that will be waiting for you when you graduate.

Alternatively, you might have impressed a client so much that they suggest you contact them if you’re looking for employment. As you progress in your career, you never know how important these connections will be; hands-on experience will help you learn how to cultivate them.

11. Business etiquette

Getting a grasp of professional and business etiquette is something that isn’t taught in a classroom — it can only be learned by seeing and imitating. Many school leavers and graduates are not used to professional environments and can have trouble making the initial adjustment, which has consequences.

Knowing how to express yourself in an email or a phone conversation might seem relatively straightforward, but when you get it wrong, it can leave a negative and lasting impression on you. There’s nothing more embarrassing than having to be told how to answer a phone properly, for example.

Therefore, getting exposure to how offices operate and how people communicate with each other can give you a good head start. When it comes to making a positive first impression, this could truly set you apart from your peers.

12. Negotiation skills

At some point in your career, you’ll have to make agreements with employers, coworkers or outside parties over minor and even major issues. Learning the art of negotiation and compromising in the workplace is, therefore, key.

During work experience, you may run into relationships or challenges that require negotiation. You may build the skills to support your arguments while maintaining a positive tone and compromising with your peers.

Such negotiation skills will come in handy with your real-life job, from having to negotiate a work schedule, a contract, your salary or a deadline with your boss. Being able to successfully negotiate, create a mutual understanding and solve a problem can ultimately be highly beneficial for workplace success.

13. Stress management

You can’t escape stress in the workplace. In fact, it comes hand-in-hand with success. Of course, school and university can be pressuring, but there’s a difference when it comes to your actual job.

You’re pressured to perform well, maintain a good relationship with peers and managers, and ultimately, keep your job so you can earn an income. To achieve these, you may be faced with situations that cause stress, such as working long hours, a heavy workload, or tight deadlines.

Although it may not feel as serious, you may face similar scenarios during your work experience. The stress you encounter during your placement can be just as demanding if you’re eager to complete it successfully and enhance your career. But learning how to manage stress beforehand can prepare you for similar situations at your future job.

14. Determination

It’s easy to give up and let go when things aren’t working out. Doing so at work, however, can have a consequential effect on your employability and overall professionalism. Employers want to hire someone who is able to push through and face any hurdles and challenges in the workplace. The work determination you attain from work experience can, therefore, be highly valuable.

Through your internship or placement, you will most certainly stumble upon difficult situations that will test your determination to carry on. The key is to learn to push through and avoid giving up so that, when it comes to your future job, you’ll have the same determination at the ready.

15. Coping skills

You develop coping skills by learning from your mistakes. And what better way to make “excusable” mistakes than during your work experience?

After all, you’re there to learn lessons and think about how you can improve the next time you’re in a similar situation. When you fail at something, it means you’re in the process of learning and, ultimately, that is the purpose of a work placement or an internship.

The professional experience that you gain can help you work past your mistakes, develop coping skills and take away powerful lessons that can help you avoid similar errors in your future career — which can be detrimental for your success.

How to highlight your work experience skills

“When you got it, flaunt it,” sang Uma Thurman in Susan Stroman’s The Producers. And why shouldn’t you? Here are four ways to hone in on your skills and show potential employers your value.

On your résumé

If you’re like most jobseekers, you’ll likely be using a reverse-chronological résumé in your job search.

Even though these types of résumés put more emphasis on work experience rather than your skill set, they must still include a section that’s dedicated to outlining your most valuable skills. Typically, you’ll want to list 10–15 skills on your résumé; any more, and it can make your document appear cluttered and imprecise.

If you’re a student, recent graduate or someone with limited work experience, using a skills-based résumé instead can be a smart move. Where chronological résumés have a large employment history section, skills-based ones center on a professional skills section.

In your cover letter

An effective cover letter introduces you to the hiring manager, conveys your enthusiasm for the role and the company, and presents you as the ideal candidate. It does the latter by relating your skill set and knowledge to the job requirements, essentially “ticking them off” one by one.

As such, it provides an opportunity for you to talk in more detail about what you’ve learned from your job experience and which skills are your strongest.

On your LinkedIn profile

Much like your résumé, your LinkedIn profile has some key sections you should always strive to fill in. Besides your headline, summary and work experience sections, it’s a good idea to complete your skills section, too.

Although you can add around 50 skills to your profile, it’s best not to go overboard and make your profile look cluttered and unfocused. Choosing 10–15 skills (as you would on your résumé) is a better way to demonstrate your most recent and relevant skills that employers in your industry consider most desirable.

In a job interview

In a job interview, the hiring manager might ask you something along the lines of: “What have you learned from your work experience so far?”. When a question like this comes up, use it as an opportunity to talk about your skills.

The best way to do this is to describe real scenarios you dealt with in your previous roles, mention what skills those challenges or tasks allowed you to build, and then indicate how your skill set makes you a good fit for the role.

Key takeaways

As you can see, there is more to be gained from work experience than an extra block of text on your résumé. You could think of it as a crash course in soft skill development and professional awareness, two traits that employers look kindly upon!

To summarize:

  • Many key job skills you will develop through work immersion are transferable; in other words, they can come in handy down the line, even if you change career paths.
  • Work experience can boost your professional development in many ways. Besides growing your skill set, it often leads to important connections being made, as well as increased confidence.
  • Highlighting your skill set in your application materials as well as the interviews you attend is a great way to show prospective employers you have what it takes to meet their requirements.

Can you think of any more employability skills that work experience can help people develop? Share them with us in the comments section below.

Originally published on February 9, 2018. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.