Work your way into a new job

Posted 25 Sep 2005. First published in The Press, Christchurch, on 8 Sep 2001.

Unpaid work experience can be a valuable tool in your job search. Firstly, it gives you the opportunity to find out whether you are suited to a particular employment field. Secondly, it gives you a chance to demonstrate your
motivation, skills and potential to an employer.

Try before you buy. If you are contemplating an expensive training programme as an entry into a new career field, a few days’ work experience can save you possible disappointment later. Perhaps the job that looks glamorous from the outside may not look glamorous from the inside. Perhaps there are too many graduates and too few vacancies. If so, even a three-year qualification won’t secure a job, and the demand for jobs may have driven wages down to rock-bottom levels. Some employment fields are particularly prone to false starts and dashed hopes — the travel, airline, interior decoration, real estate sales and veterinary service industries leap to mind. Of course many people who are attracted to these fields thrive in them. But there is really only one way to find out whether the job is right for you — try it out and talk to the people who work in the industry.

In addition to assessing your suitability for the job, you’ll discover all kinds of useful information. For a start, you might uncover niche roles that you didn’t even know existed, and one of these might suit you down to the ground. You might also learn that employers prefer some training programmes over others, and that the most expensive programme is not necessarily the most valued. Alternatively, you might find that graduating from a training programme is only one way to enter the field, and that there are more effective ways of reaching your goal.

Once you are clear as to the job you want, and you are confident that you can learn to perform it well, work experience has the added advantage of sharpening your written applications and interview performance. For example, last year I worked with a client on a successful application for a position as a case manager with the Department of Work and Income. A keenly sought role and a complex application process. In addition to a CV, we prepared a multi-page application form with answers to a series of open-ended questions, a ten-minute speech (an increasing candidate assessment trend in certain employment sectors), speech hand-out notes, and as an added extra, we arranged for several weeks of work experience prior to the interview. My client made good use of the time, questioning case managers and work brokers to find out everything she could about the business.

An effective strategy. According to a key DWI recruitment decision-maker, applicants with work experience tend to have a better feel for the job, and give more pertinent answers during interviews. Another bonus of work experience for the employer as well as the applicant is that it tends to sift out those applicants who don’t really understand all the dimensions of the job they are applying for, and are therefore less likely to become productive long-term employees.

If your work experience involves performing the role as well as learning about the business, it is by far the strongest way of demonstrating your suitability to a prospective employer. However, you need to be wary of the pitfalls. I’m told that in summer in the Gold Coast in Australia, it has become commonplace for young vacationers to offer a few days’ free work in the restaurants there — as a technique for obtaining a paid position. And many employers have simply wised up to it — they get free dishwashers all summer.

I’ve also heard of a graduate of a travel industry training programme who worked with one employer for four months for nothing before she secured a low-paid position. Considering that many graduates fail to gain employment in the industry, it was probably worth it for her. Nonetheless, four months is a long time to work without being paid.

Use your judgement. Before you start work experience, come to a clear agreement with the employer as to its duration and realistically assess the likelihood of permanent employment. If you’re unsure, there is no substitute for talking with the people who actually work in the industry and finding out how it works.

Applied judiciously, a free trial offer of your skills can be a very powerful job search strategy, and it can often be the factor that tips the scales in your favour. For example, a client of mine was seeking a hotel lobby reception role, and she was having trouble convincing employers that she was mature enough for it. She was twenty years old and there seemed to be an unofficial industry rule that twenty-three was the youngest age for employment on reception. So she secured seventy-five hours’ work experience on reception and obtained a glowing testimonial.

And her next position? Sole receptionist at an exclusive lodge, paying over twice her former salary. Her work experience had not only demonstrated her skill and maturity, but also her high level of motivation — one of the key attributes that all employers are seeking.

© Christopher Adrian Eilers 2001–18.