Gaining work experience can make a huge difference to your career. While some college courses now offer work experience placements or modules as standard, many don’t, and graduates with relevant experience stand the greatest chance of getting hired.
So, should you apply for a permanent role, fixed-term internship or a structured graduate recruitment programme? And what’s going to give you the best chance of getting them?
Getting the job
Jane Downes, founder of ClearviewCoachingGroup.com and author of The Career Book, advises students and graduates to select the top 10 organisations they'd like to work for and know the skills range of their employees and bosses. "Think what you want. If you're doing an internship, is it about getting the name of a company on your CV, building your skills, or both? Make sure your CV is smart, fresh and up-to-date."
Brendan Lally, careers adviser at UL, says it isn't always the best idea to seek out a permanent role. "If the employer of your dreams only recruits graduate talent on fixed-term contracts, what then? You have to consider how much you want this opportunity in this company. For most graduates, the key consideration will be the chances of a permanent job when the contract is complete. Employers will usually be upfront about this early on in the hiring process, telling you that your performance will be the key factor in whether you're hired for a permanent opportunity. Often, a small number of top performers are kept on and offered permanent contracts."
Sinéad D'Arcy, head of the international graduate programme at Jameson, says work experience, volunteering and/or being active in college clubs and societies is helpful when looking for that placement. "It shows that you're goal-oriented and have get-up-and-go. Also, look at your strengths and where you have shone. Learn about the culture of the company you're interested in: are they on Instagram or LinkedIn? Can you connect with them? Follow them on social media and see if they're a fit for you and your values. Like, comment and share on their articles and posts, so they get to know you before you even meet them."
There can be specific requirements for different programmes. “Our programme is field-based and so needs graduates with full, clean driver’s licences, and an applicant could be fluent in three languages but we won’t take them without that driver’s licence,” says D’Arcy.
Some graduate programmes will only take you on within two to four years of leaving college, although the Jameson programme doesn’t have any time cap.
Keeping the job
While it may sound like all the cards are stacked on the employer’s side, a fixed-term contract can help the graduate to decide if the job is right for them. Is there anything someone on a graduate contract can do to make sure that they’re one of those top performers that the company keeps on?
Do what you’re asked to do, Downes advises. “If that’s making the tea or photocopying, just do it. Then you can say to them: ‘I’d love to get experience in this particular area.’ Set and manage expectations, but also ask for more when you’ve done your work. Be comfortable with your weaknesses and what you don’t know, ask, but don’t harass and hound. Engage with people and seize any opportunities you can. Seek feedback and take it on board. Be presentable. Have coffees with colleagues and cultivate curiosity as well as relationships. And if the internship is coming to an end, let them know you’d love a job here. And if you’re on a three-month placement and hate it, grin and bear it for a few months, as it may be a good name on the CV.”
“Your goal is to transition quickly and lose that ‘grad tag’ by adding value to your team quickly,” says Lally. “Take ownership of the work assigned and finish it to the highest possible standard. Avoid the trap of [staying in] your comfort zone. You want your work to be above the standard of a graduate. Investigate outside your job responsibilities and look to secure some early wins. Know exactly where the expectation bar is, but beware of setting unrealistic goals for yourself.”
Don’t confine yourself to technical roles; learn the culture of the organisation, too. “Network and make your intentions known,” Lally advises. “Diversify your coffee-break partners as much as possible. You need to build support at all levels and not just manage up but also horizontally across your team. Joining company sports and social clubs is a good way to do this. Keep looking for feedback from different stakeholders. Be brave and ask them for frank and honest assessments.”
It’s up to graduates to make the most of a programme, says D’Arcy. “Here, you get to meet senior members of the company which can help build your brand. Put away your phone. Soak up all the information. Generation Z tend to think of their personal brand as being online, but don’t neglect building up your offline brand with stakeholders in the company: network and make sure that people know who you are, for the right reasons, and go the extra mile.”
Graduate recruitment programme vs internship vs work experience
Graduate recruitment programme: A structured training programme, usually run by larger firms, which takes in a set number of graduates each year. Graduates will usually have a chance to work across the business to find what interests them most. Programmes typically last for 12 or 18 months, except in the big four auditing firms where it takes 36 months to complete your training as a chartered accountant.
Internship: These can be more common among smaller and medium-sized firms, where students or graduates on internships work on less formalised or structured programmes. With less structure, you may need to self-start, sink or swim. Whereas you'll be one of many on a grad programme – building up friendships and connections – you could be the only intern in the office. Internships tend to run for shorter periods. Interns, like every staff member, are there to add value to the company and should be paid, particularly in larger firms where they can clearly afford it. Only consider unpaid internships if the opportunity is particularly excellent and relevant to your ambitions.
Work experience: More often carried out by college students who are not sure what sector they want to work in, it's nonetheless a good way of gaining experience.
My graduate experience: Hannah O’Shea
Hannah O’Shea is in her second year of the Jameson graduate programme. She is currently on placement as a digital marketing assistant in Irish Distillers’ Dublin headquarters after spending her first year as a Jameson brand ambassador in Manchester. How did she get the job and what has she learned?
“If you know you want to work in a specific industry, then build up experience,” she advises. “If, for example, you want to work in the drinks industry, then get behind the bar, chat to customers, get some sales experience and learn about the trade. You could also build up experience in promotions or running events with a college society. Travel, do internships or placements and use every opportunity that college offers to build up personal and professional experience.”
An international language is not a requirement for the Jameson international programme, but it helps. Outside this, O’Shea advises graduates and graduands to showcase any challenges they have taken on, such as Erasmus, study abroad programmes or volunteer work. “The Jameson graduate programme requires serious character, so they want to hear about life experiences outside of your studies. On this programme, you also have to complete a two-minute application video and a brief supporting video application. Going over the two minutes is a common mistake, as is putting a lot of effort into the video but not enough in the application.”
The programme requires graduates to work with different stakeholders across the business, so O'Shea advises applicants to be engaging from the outset. "Engage with everyone during the application process: the Irish Distillers team, fellow candidates, current graduates on the programme at the assessment centre. Turn your phone off for the day and immerse yourself. Another common mistake is straying too far from the brief during the assessment – while still putting your own unique twist on it."
And what might make a company more likely to keep someone on? “Get stuck in from day one. Make sure you are clear about your role and responsibilities. Ask questions; the more you ask, the more you will learn. And don’t just ask questions: really listen.”