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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 will already have gained the key transferable skills that all potential 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 give you an idea of what we mean and to illustrate the potential benefits of work experience, we’ve compiled a list of some of the professional skills you could gain!
To an extent, university also helps you develop self-reliance. You are 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 colleagues.
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, 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 organisations 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 realise how decisions are made and how a company’s culture can have an impact.
You might not realise it at the time, but as a student, you are still fairly immature. As wonderful as higher education is, you are 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 colleagues 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.
If you don’t play well with others, then you should probably consider starting your own one-person business – 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 recognise that the strengths and weaknesses of individuals are only effective when combined into something greater.
It’s also one of the few guaranteed questions you will face in an interview: ‘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 of 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 instance, 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 is 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 simply don’t care. Doing something that you enjoy every day – and being good at it – will bring out the best of you.
9. Organisation skills
University teaches organisation 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 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 prioritise 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.
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 colleagues, 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 telephone 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 first impression, this could truly set you apart from your peers.
12. Negotiation skills
At some point in your career, you will have to make agreements with employers, co-workers, or outside parties over minor and even major issues. Learning the art of negotiation and compromising in the workplace is, therefore, key.
At work experience, you may run into relationships or challenges that require negotiation. You may build the skills to support your arguments whilst 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, 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 are 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.
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.
As you can see, there is more to be gained from work experience than an extra block of text on your résumé; think of it as a crash course in soft skill development and professional awareness. Luckily, employers look kindly upon these two particular traits, meaning you will be well equipped to tackle the interview process when you graduate.
Join the discussion! What other skills did you learn from your work experience? Let us know in the comments section below!
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 9 February 2018 and was written in collaboration with Angela Stephanou.