The importance of on-the-job learning for graduates

Picking up skills not taught at third level can be overlooked but can help boost your career.

Identifying strengths and weaknesses is a key component of the growth and development of employees. Photograph: iStock

Identifying strengths and weaknesses is a key component of the growth and development of employees. Photograph: iStock


You learn a lot in school and university, but education doesn’t stop there. In fact, one of the biggest benefits of beginning a new job is what it teaches you about yourself, about people and about what you want from your career.

There is the obvious learning in a workplace such as how to complete the task at hand, but there are many other skills that are naturally picked up in a work environment but that are often overlooked.

Peter Lewis, a career coach from the career’s development office at TU Dublin, said most young people feel particularly overwhelmed when beginning a new job.

“It will always be quite different when you enter the workplace and it’s great to gain that experience. But I think it’s important that for most individuals, when they’re moving from college or university into the workplace, many will find it particularly overwhelming initially,” he said.

“It does take time for graduates and students to adjust but that’s totally normal. Take the time to seek advice, to be mentored by colleagues in the environment, ask questions and look to build relationships.”

This feeling of being overwhelmed is exacerbated by the “massive gap” between school, college and the workplace, according to Pauline Harley, an independent career coach.

“It’s really only when you get onsite and start doing things that you gain that knowledge of how things work in reality,” she added.

Often, actually experiencing a job first-hand is very different from what we imagined, the experts added.

When you actually begin a job in the field, you obtain valuable learning about whether it is a career you want to pursue long term, or if, in reality, it is no longer something you enjoy.

“It also helps to clarify their interest in sectors and industries that they think they’re interested in, or roles they think they’re interested in,” Lewis said.

“When they’re in college, they have a certain understanding of roles and sectors, but going out there into industries can help confirm that they’re everything they thought they were going to be.”

Theoretical knowledge

The process of applying theoretical knowledge or skills into practical situations is a specific benefit and it helps graduates learn about the industry.

“They have the opportunity to apply and enhance technical skills they’re learning on their programme,” Mr Lewis said.

“On a personal level, the transversal skills that we talk about – the opportunity to develop their team work skills, to build relationships and build rapport, communication skills, both verbal and written – are also developed.”

Working also allows employees to develop project management and leadership skills, things which can only be taught through experience.

“They might have done some of it in college, but to take ownership of tasks and to know how to ask the right questions, when to show initiative and move forward with their tasks,” he said.

“They have the ability to organise and prioritise tasks and I suppose in a lot of ways, developing those qualities and the confidence of the working environment and building that resilience and confidence to trust one’s own ability is really important.”

Identifying strengths and weaknesses is a key component of the growth and development of employees.

Ms Harley said there are many common weaknesses, including a lack of confidence and an inability to express themselves, but that if they are identified then they can also be rectified.

An over-reliance on a strength can allow it to become a weakness, she said. While acknowledging a weakness can assist you to look at it from a different perspective and to utilise it to your advantage.

“The problem with younger people is that instant gratification thing. They go in and they don’t envisage that they have to do the grunt work. It happens and that in itself is a weakness that eventually turns into a strength because they learn that you have to start somewhere and you have to listen,” she said.

“Impatience and a tendency to compare yourself to other people who are where you want to be without sitting down and considering what it took to get there.”

Learning from rejection

An inability to handle rejection is another common thing that people starting in the workplace experience. However, Ms Harley said rejection is ever-present in a career, with every employee experiencing it at least once.

“It’s a part of life. Not being able to handle it is a weakness, but you can learn from it,” she added.

All of these lessons are broad and can be applied to any sector within the labour force.

This means, even if the current job is not one you enjoy, you have learned things that you can take away from it that enhance your employability when applying to other prospective jobs.

Mr Lewis said: “One of the greatest benefits of gaining experience is actually gaining experience that will help you on your CV. To be able to articulate in your application the learning that you have amalgamated through your work experience is a really great selling point to your employers.”

Working in an industry allows you to meet other people in the sector, whether it be other individuals who work in the same company as you, or at multi-organisation networking events.

These opportunities should be seized by young people. Not only do they allow you to make new friends, but contacts within the industry you’re interested in are invaluable.

“I think in terms of career development, building relationships and building contacts, building that cultural capital, whereby you begin to know and network with professionals within the industry is very, very important both for the current role and for building the career and moving forward when you’re looking for future opportunities,” Mr Lewis said.

“It can also mean you can get great references as you move on in your career because you built those strong relationships.”

Getting out into an industry also exposes workers to up-to-date knowledge and industry information, that niche information about what’s happening within the industry, as well as forthcoming opportunities in the sector, he added.

According to Ms Harley, emotional regulation is one of the biggest values we pick up through on-the-job learning.

Jobs are just as much an emotional journey as they are a work one, she added.

“By observing people in their working habitats, you can see the way people react and respond to each other and see what’s triggering them. I suppose the correct term is emotional intelligence,” she said.

“Observing human behaviour in a professional environment allows you to develop your own interaction and become more aware of your triggers.”

Ms Harley believes that young people starting a new job should keep a work journal to keep track of their success and failures, and to examine what they do and don’t like about the role they’re in.

This reflection, she believes, will help them build sustained careers that take their motivations and values into account.

“They’re at that stage in their life where they’re getting on the career bandwagon, they’re going around and around, and that usually keeps going on until the mid to late 40s. Then by the time people get to their mid-40s, they want to get off that merry-go-round because it’s not so merry anymore,” she said.

“That’s when we get that value reflection and alignment, and we look at the strengths and weaknesses. It’s terrible it takes so long to reflect. We could start that process earlier to get realigned. It could save a lot of burnout and stress.”

Setting boundaries

Stress and burnout are common among workers of all ages, but young people in particular, as they are eager to make a name for themselves.

However, Ms Harley believes that surrounding yourself with colleagues who are good at setting boundaries will teach you about a healthy work-life balance.

“Value connection is a huge thing we learn. Things that people kind of connect with on a relatable level with us,” she said.

“From observing other people who have good work-life balance, you can learn a lot yourself. On the other side, if you observe people who have their foot on the accelerator all the time then you’ll learn that too, which isn’t necessarily a good skill.”

Colleagues are important when it comes to fulfilment in a job, too. Not only are they people from whom you can learn and engage with, they also create a specific culture that you will be enveloped in.

A good working culture increases job satisfaction, while a negative one often results in employees’ happiness levels decreasing.

“One of the core experiences when people talk about success in roles, it often has to do with the types of culture within companies and how they’ve gotten on with people,” Mr Lewis said.

“How they’ve been able to build their relationships with them, that’s really, really important. Many people struggle with this in certain jobs or certain companies. Often it can be relational issues due to a culture in a company that can create a greater challenge than technical skills issues.”

Ms Harley agrees, adding that companies are composed of “eclectic” cultures. The pandemic, she said, has encouraged people to value the people around them just as much as the money they make from a job.

“It brings that kind of collective culture and sense of connection. People want good people around you so that you can learn those soft skills that matter,” she added.