Work experience is the thing employers are looking for
“The only source of knowledge is experience”
Albert Einstein
Picture the scene
Imagine your wedding day. It’s been building up for months; the planning, the visits, the lists. Everyone is dressed in their poshest clobber, the sun is shining and the best man has removed jokes about the mother in law from his speech. The photographer arrives and is setting up, but looks a bit overawed by all of the people around and is looking perplexed at their camera, unable to connect the lens to the main body and is starting to sweat. The father of the bride spots this and wanders over hoping to help but equally concerned that his £2000 investment in capturing the images of the day isn’t going to go as planned.
He asks, “Everything alright?”.
The twitchy photographer replies, “Ah, thanks, I’ll be fine. I just haven’t used this camera before”.
The father’s concern piques again. “Any reason you chose to use that one today”.
“Of course, yes. This is the one we studied at University. It’s amazing, all the latest tech and automatic adjustments to the aperture, the shutter speeds and the ISO. Incredible!”
“Studied?” The father responds with increasing alarm. “What about used? Which camera did you use? And which ones have you used at previous weddings?”
“Oh, I haven’t used a camera before. I’ve only studied them – mind you I got a first class honours degree! This is my first ever event and the first time I’ll actually use a camera!”
The father of the bride explodes!
This ridiculous, hypothetical situation would never happen (maybe) because the photographer wouldn’t have been recruited to the job, for one key reason. The father of the bride would have asked several key questions in assessing their credentials for the job.
  • How many events have you worked on before?
  • Can I see examples of your previous work?
  • Can I ask for a reference from previous clients?
Imagine the same situation for your surgeon, your parachute tandem partner or your hairdresser – they’ve only studied doing what you want them to do and now they’re claiming readiness to work based on the essays they’ve written and they’re now demanding top fees for their service – because that’s what they’ve heard ‘they’re worth.’
Mind the gap
This is the prevailing situation many graduates find themselves in these days. Exiting university with little or no practical experience or craft skill to actually work. They’re not ready to work – yet the world of work is becoming more demanding. I’ve written extensively about what students can do to increase the applicability to their studies – but, while it is a broad sweeping statement, university departments are not doing nearly enough to equip graduates to work. And the gap is widening.
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National surveys show that 52% of students cite, “Because I want to pursue a particular career”, as one of the top reasons for attending university. So this, of course, would mean most universities prioritise work experience as a compulsory, comprehensive and integrated element in their programmes, right? Wrong, all too often it’s a 20 hour commitment, with a lower class status of being discretionary. There are exceptions, such as the sandwich style year long placements or extensive links with the community* – but these don’t go far enough, often they’re isolated not integrated and woven into the fabric of every lesson. If students are learning to ‘know’ stuff, they need to be encouraged and mentored to ‘do’ stuff with that knowledge.
I have taken this quote from a report on ‘Where student fees go’, that typifies the lack of focus on prioritising providing work experience opportunities held in many institutions.
“We encourage all our student to take a placement if it fits with their studies!”
Fit? Fit with their studies? We’ve just heard students want this to be part of their studies. This is typical of the prevailing attitudes in HE and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Universities prioritise fixed, topic modules that align to traditional subjects – rarely with the opportunity to immerse in the complex, integrated, multi-disciplinary demands combined with the pressures of the needs of the client.
“If students are learning to ‘know’ stuff, they need to be encouraged and mentored to ‘do’ stuff with that knowledge.”
If you’re a student and hope to actually work in the real world in a career aligned to the subject you’re studying,
I have three recommendations for you;
  • Find a work experience opportunity – do whatever it takes to do this. You’re currently investing tens of thousands of your own money into your education – you must equally invest in making that education relevant by acquiring work experience (SIGN UP FOR OUR FREE 5 POINT GUIDE ON GETTING WORK EXPERIENCE)
  • Make that opportunity one that lasts. A 20 hour placement is wholly inadequate. Find one that you can work on for a year, or even better throughout your 3 or 4 year studies.
  • ***CONTROVERSY ALERT*** – sacrifice some of your study time to make this happen. Grades do not correlate with successful job applications or career effectiveness. Work experience and a hunger to learn skills, work with people and make a difference – do.
Work experience IS the most important vehicle for making your studies relevant and positioning you for taking that next step into the world of work. Universities do not place enough priority on this – so it’s up to you to take that experience into your own hands.
Are you a student taking ownership for this yourself? Are you a pioneer creating an integrated work experience for your students? or do you just plain disagree – then let us know in the comments box below or email us at

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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