Industry experience: the value of work placements

Posted October 13, 2011, by Josie Chun
‘I have learnt an incredible amount about business, experiences that no monetary value could even come close to purchasing. Every challenge was a learning experience, every day is a lesson and you are never too young to strive to be the best you can be.’

Phil Watson, work placement student, ICMS

If you’re itching to put all that classroom theory you’ve been learning into practice, there’s no better way to do it than through a work placement.

Work placement is any work experience, practicum, clinical or field placement that students undertake as part of their academic program. They can be optional but are often a requirement in order to complete a degree and usually include assessment. Sometimes you’re even paid during your work placement.

Work placements are an integral component of many courses, especially when you’re studying something with a strong practical element such as teaching, nursing, natural therapies or community services. Even if you’re studying by distance, work placement may still be a requirement for your course.

The point of doing a work placement is to give you real-life, practical experience in the workplace. This kind of experience is invaluable – it tests your skills, proves your competency, and gives you an opportunity to observe and receive feedback and supervision. Work placement experience will definitely help you when you’re looking for a job – you’ll have great contacts and have something concrete and relevant to put on your resume. If you’re lucky, work placements can sometimes lead to permanent work with the same company.

Margaret Ploskodniak, Clinical Placement Coordinator at the Jansen Newman Institute (JNI), explains: ‘We incorporate hands-on experience into every one of our programs, integrating academic knowledge with practical and clinical experience. JNI graduates are workplace-ready and placements and field work are a vital part of the development of learners into practitioners.’

What happens during work placement?

Every work placement is different, but they usually involve a combination of observation and supervised work at a relevant organisation. ‘It might involve an external placement with a practitioner, observation, dispensing and treatment in our own multi-modality clinic or attendance at one of our community events,’ says Sam Jacobs, Head of Operations at the Southern School of Natural Therapies (SSNT).

‘Some placements are managed through log books detailing observations, others are supervised on site as students begin to treat clients. All students undertaking placements required for their course are supported by experienced clinic supervisors and academic staff. Most external placements are unpaid, but students are covered by the school’s insurance for all course-required activities,’ adds Jacobs.

Pippa Sangster is studying a Graduate Diploma of Counselling and Psychotherapy at JNI, where students must complete 50 hours of face-to-face clinical work in the second year of their course. For her work placement, Pippa provides free counselling sessions at the Green Point Community Centre, as well as bereavement counselling at the Central Coast Bereavement Service.

‘All students must participate in individual and group supervision through JNI. We must attend at least seven out of eight group supervisions and 10 individual one-hour supervision sessions. Additionally, some placements may require you to undertake supervision with them – for example, at the Central Coast Bereavement Service I attend regular supervision with the Coordinator of Bereavement Counselling.’   

How do you get a work placement?

Most course providers will assist students to find their placements. JNI provides information about possible work placements and introduces clients through the clinic, but students are also encouraged to look for their own placements. ‘We have a database of organisations that take our students. Students are encouraged to initiate contact with an organisation that will facilitate them meeting their desired career outcomes. Students are well supported through the Clinical Coordinator’s Office to establish a placement relevant to their needs and their work/study balance,’ says JNI’s Margaret Ploskodniak.

The International College of Management, Sydney (ICMS) operates in a similar fashion. Phil Watson is studying a Bachelor of Business Management specialising in Sports Management at ICMS, where a nine-month period of paid industry training is a requirement of his degree. ‘ICMS has a careers and development department which assists all students in finding a placement if required, and every student has equal access to all college resources and industry placement opportunities to ensure everyone has the chance to receive the greatest experience possible. Alternatively students are able to find their own placement if they have the ability and contacts to do so,’ says Watson. 

Students can also get creative with their work placement. Instead of finding a placement with another company, Watson created his own opportunity: ‘My work placement was slightly different in nature. I had the privilege of being the first ever student at ICMS to start my own fully operational, viable and registered company for industry training. I started a company called 360 Sports Pty Ltd, a sports consultancy company which is still fully operational.’

Are you assessed during your work placement?

Assessment is almost always a component of work placements so that students can receive formal feedback as they hone their skills, as well as reflect on their own performance – and this is one of the most valuable aspects of the experience.

‘I was assessed during my placement and was required to write a report on my experience. The key areas of the report included things such as major milestones, best and worst experiences, self and peer evaluations. I also had to relate it to key issues and subjects studied at ICMS,’ says Watson.

Students are also assessed, as well as receive supervision, at JNI. ‘All students receive supervision in a variety of formats such as weekly debriefings as well as individual and clinical supervision. Students must hand in relevant assignments and learning contracts and portfolios during their practicum,’ says Margaret Ploskodniak.

Why do a work placement?

‘It ensures that you have the experience, skills and confidence required to succeed in your chosen career. Placements link classroom learning with real-life situations,’ explains Ploskodniak. ‘The students get to experience work with a variety of clients in different settings in the community, interact with skilled clinicians and practitioners, and explore career options. We follow the training standards of the relevant professional bodies.’

From the students’ perspectives, work placements provide some of the most valuable learning during their studies. ‘This is one of the most valuable experiences I have ever had. Without this real world experience I would be entering the workforce once I finish my degree well behind the eight ball, but this has put me ahead of the game,’ says Phil Watson. ‘Nothing beats real world industry training – experience is unbeatable.’

Pippa Sangster heartily agrees. ‘My work placements are proving to be absolutely invaluable. When I began my placement I realised very quickly that this was the place where I was really going to learn how to be a counsellor.  However much I may have learnt through lectures, role plays and group therapy at college, this is where I was going to be able to put my learning into action. Abstract ideas I thought I had understood suddenly became crystal clear to me once I was undertaking counselling with real clients.’

In addition to the specific skills you learn on the job, there are many additional benefits – you gain insight into the industry and how it’s run, as well as invaluable networking opportunities. ‘My placements give me the opportunity to learn about the practical side of the counselling business. Working within community organisations is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the way organisations function and provides opportunities to network with other people in the counselling and community field,’ says Sangster.

For those who excel during their work placement, there is always the chance that the placement could lead to permanent work. Linda McCarthy, a naturopathy student at SSNT, was given such a chance. ‘One of the placements resulted in being offered casual work after the completion of placement and on graduation a role was offered as the practising naturopath in a very busy dispensary.  This was invaluable and I do not think this would have been offered had it not been for the third-year observation placement.’

Phil Watson sums up his work placement experience with characteristic enthusiasm. ‘I have learnt life skills that I can apply everywhere in both day-to-day life and also particular social situations. I have also learnt an incredible amount about business, experiences that no monetary value could even come close to purchasing. Every challenge was a learning experience that I ensured I took with both hands. Every day is a lesson and you are never too young to strive to be the best you can be and achieve your dreams, goals and desires. Life is what you make it and with will power and determination anything is possible.’

Many of our distance courses offer a work placement component. Browse almost 500 courses to gain valuable skills and get ahead in your career.

Josie Chun

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