Early in my career, I was given two separate (and unsolicited) pieces of advice: The first was to learn the job of the person immediately above me if I wanted to progress fast. The second was to ‘perfect’ a spectacularly bad cup of tea or coffee if asked to make one for my superiors.
“Make it extra milky or cold … or add half a teaspoon of salt so it tastes ‘wrong’ but not detectably salty,” I was advised. “If they know you can’t make a decent cuppa, they won’t make you do it again.”
'Show no flair for the menial jobs,' was the implication, 'lest that’s all you’re given'.
I have seen many students embrace this philosophy during their work experience placements. I’ve clocked the roll of the eyes and incredulous expressions when asked to perform a simple errand or mundane task that’s ‘beneath’ their perceived value. I’ve watched their bored, ‘go-slow’ approach to jobs “that any monkey could do” while simultaneously displaying a disturbing lack of initiative or common sense (“The photocopier’s run out of paper,” shrugged one young man to explain why he’d sat looking at his phone for the last 15 minutes … in a storeroom full of photocopier paper).
And then I’ve seen the positive, helpful kids: The ones who smile and look you in the eye, who complete monotonous tasks efficiently and offer to do more; the ones who watch quietly and ask questions; the ones who volunteer to do the coffee run and use the opportunity to say hello and introduce themselves to other members of staff; the ones who aren’t afraid to serve!
Which would you employ?
The truth is, finding useful, meaningful work to occupy students on work experience can be challenging for managers in a busy work environment. The teenagers entering their workplace for a week may well be smart and talented and world-changing … but they currently lack the experience and skill set specific to that company. Health and safety regulations, specialist training requirements and legal restrictions may further limit the practical tasks a student volunteer is able to perform.
Some students see work experience as an opportunity to stand out and be noticed but, in many ways, the opposite is true; managers want kids who can fit in with minimal fuss – young adults who are useful rather than a drain on time and resources. Hard-working and motivated students who are happy to 'muck in' and get along with everyone will make a better impression than those bent on innovating new strategies to revolutionise the workplace.
Tips for students
Do your homework!
There is nothing worse than students reporting for duty who clearly know nothing about the industry or company they are volunteering their services in. Check out the website of the company you will be working for. Get on LinkedIn and view the profiles of people who work there – especially the person to whom you will report. Read and digest any information the company has sent you in advance. If you’re well researched, you’re more likely to be able to hit the ground running when you start your work placement.
Watch your social media feeds
It is highly likely that your temporary employer will be checking you out as well! Make sure you haven't anything published on Insta or Facebook that they will find inappropriate. Posting "Dad got me a week at this poxy company to get me off school for a bit. Look forward to seeing what I can grab from their stationery cupboard" will not be well received!
Dress the part
Will your job require closed in shoes and long hair tied back? Are you required to wear business clothes, 'smart casual' (tricky one!) or overalls? If you are at all unsure about the dress code, ring the company up in advance and ask.
Aim to arrive early on your first day
Punctuality is great - but if you arrive exactly on time only to discover that the main entrance or reception is in a separate block or around the other side of the building, you will be ... er ... late. Hopefully you will have confirmed exactly where and to whom you will report in advance of your placement. If something does go wrong on your journey to work, make sure you call your line manager and keep them informed.
Be positive and helpful, even if the work is boring
Smile, be friendly and make eye contact. Work quietly and efficiently. Ask how you can help. Volunteer to fetch/carry/tidy up/sort. Look keen.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions...
... particularly if you're unclear about what you have been asked to do. Find out what people enjoy about working there. What are their biggest challenges? What was their career route to their current position? What advice would they give to someone working in that industry?
But don't ask questions for the sake of it. If you've researched the company you're working for (see 'Do your homework' above), you shouldn't need to ask dopey questions like, "Do you have any other offices?" or "Who are your main customers?".
Watch and learn
That first piece of advice I was given at the beginning of my career, about learning the job of the person directly above me? It was a really good one. Work experience provides a great opportunity to observe and see how people perform their roles, interact with others and manage their time.
Send a thank you letter
Even if all you learnt during your period of work experience was how to fill the stapler and take telephone messages, be courteous and send a thank you letter or email to your line manager at the end of your placement.
Oh … and if you are asked to make a cup of tea, make a really good one and serve with a smile!