Tackling high school work experience

Posted October 13, 2011, by Helen Isbister

Getting involved in work experience during your last years of high school can be a good way to test-drive careers. Sampling a few jobs will help you decide what you may, or may not, want to do when you jump into the workplace for real. It will also come in handy since employers look for work experience on resumes – especially when it comes to newcomers who don’t have much else to set them apart.

Whether you end up pursuing the career later on or not, you will learn some valuable lessons about the big wide working world. Do your research, prepare and tackle your high school work experience with enthusiasm so that you get more out of it than a week fetching skim decaf lattes.

Do your research

The first step, as simple as it sounds, is to do something you think you will enjoy. Don’t sign up for a week in a hospital if you hate the sight of blood, or go to a women’s magazine if you don’t care who Jennifer Lopez was married to last week. Scout around for opportunities that interest you.

Have a chat with your school career adviser about what you enjoy doing and they will try and match you up with a job that suits your talents, interests and the subjects you are studying. Alternatively, your friends and family might have some cool contacts so do a bit of research and ask around.

You can also take a bit of initiative and contact the HR department, or check the website, of a company to ask them about work experience possibilities. Some larger companies are limited to taking only a few work experience students each year and these spots can be in quite high demand. So if you know what you want to do, plan well ahead to make sure you don’t miss out!

Be prepared

Once you have locked yourself in for a stint of ‘work,’ spend a bit of time preparing for what lies ahead. Disorganisation is a fatal flaw when it comes to work experience.

Make sure you know exactly what it is the company that you’re going to be working for does so there are no nasty surprises on your first day. Surf around on the website beforehand to get a feel for the company culture and have a good idea of the services they offer.

Many students find themselves rocking up only to be shunted into the corner while everyone goes about their daily business not even knowing the work experience kid exists. Make sure it’s clear who you should report to – that way if you find yourself in a lull, you can ask them for some more work.

Being punctual and arriving on time is also crucial for work experience jobs. It’s important to treat this as a real job and leave a good impression – because you just never know what it could lead to down the track. So don’t waltz into the office at 11 am, take a two-hour lunch break and say your farewells an hour before anyone else clocks off. This kind of behaviour will just get you branded as a slacker.

On the job

When you are on the job, act professional. Likewise, make sure you dress appropriately. If you’re going to work in a corporate office, you don’t want to turn up in fishnets. There are different expectations and practicalities for work clothes in different professions. As a rule of thumb, play it safe and don’t wear anything too outrageous or casual. If you’re in doubt about the appropriate attire, don’t be afraid to ask the person supervising you before your first day begins.  If you look the part, the other workers are more likely to take you seriously and involve you.

No matter how boring it is, don’t look like you are bored. Sitting in the corner looking less than impressed when you are given something slightly tedious to do will get you nowhere.  Offering to carry out tasks will not only subtly steer you away from the less favourable ones, but also show that you are enthusiastic and capable of taking things on. Offering to do things like the tea or coffee round is an easy way to get known – and liked.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions to get an insight into the job – find out what people do, how they got into the job and what they like and dislike about their career. Learn as much from this experience as you can.

Know your place

Another way to make your work experience a good experience is to know your place. Don’t swan into the office making demands, expecting to attend a fashion show, interview the latest Hollywood star, or start taking control of the restaurant kitchen like the winner of MasterChef. Work experience is just that – ‘experience’. Sure, you won’t be given loads of responsibility or the glamour jobs, but at least you are getting a feel for the industry, meeting new people and finding out what work is actually like. Everyone has to start somewhere.

The employer is doing you, and your school, a favour by offering to pass some of their wisdom on to you and help you determine which career path you wish to walk down in the future. Treat them with the respect and gratitude they deserve. Who knows, if they’re really happy with you, they might agree to be a referee on your resume and help you get your next ‘real’ job.

Make the most of it

Most importantly, learn from the experience. Even if you don’t enjoy the job, at least it’s helping you work out what you don’t want to do. Plus, work experience is extremely character building. You will have met new people, gotten out of your comfort zone and learnt how to stand on your own two feet!

If you enjoy your work experience stint, be sure to stay in touch. It could lead to further work experience or even a job.

Helen Isbister

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