As a new generation of students settle into university life, many will be prepared for years of hard work – not just studying, but part-time jobs. And for some, the employment can be as educational as the courses.
Work experience certainly helped Hira Hanif overcome a rocky start to start a career that made her and her parents proud. The 29-year-old moved to the UK from Pakistan aged 12, and struggled with her English at school. She got E, F and G grades in her GCSEs, and she failed her A-levels, twice.
She didn’t have the grades she needed to get to university – and instead had to spend two years sitting a vocational BTEC qualification first. Not wanting to be overburdened with debt, she lived at home and took out minimal government loans. She worked as a sales lead at the shoe shop Aldo – a more demanding role than most student jobs. Partying took a back seat.
Work experience is an integral part of legal training, but her experience was mixed. In her law degree, she says she didn’t learn much. “I was given a book and told to sit at the back of the court and take notes. I was never fully involved [and they never] explained anything, so I never really enjoyed it.”
The next level of her studies, the Bar Professional Training Course, was much more informative, she says.
“I understood more of what was happening in court, and I appreciated my work placements more,” she says. “I took every opportunity that I could to sit in court.”
Hira completed her law studies this summer and now works as an advocate in Bristol.
“When I left school I made a pact that to say thank you for my parents’ hard work and their sacrifice, I am going to do something that will make them proud of me,” she says. “I failed so many times and every time they would say, ‘That’s ok, let’s try again’. And that’s what got me where I am.”
Work experience can sometimes be a good way to find out more about working life, decide on future careers or study options, and develop skills and employability.
“Our research has shown that 90% of students are motivated by future employment when working whilst studying,” says Eva Crossan Jory, vice president, welfare, of the National Union of Students.
Universities and colleges themselves can often help with access to part-time employment, support in moving into work after graduation and work experience, she adds. The careers advice service is the place to start.
Few things will impress a potential employer more than a student who sets up their own business – and for many students, that’s a career goal in its own right.
“Students are generally more entrepreneurial than 10 years ago – the accessibility provided by modern technology means students have the opportunity to show their entrepreneurial skills more freely and easily,” says Louise Farrar, PwC’s head of student recruitment.
For example Hasan Sukkar, 21, funded his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Exeter by selling hoodies and pillows online.
“The world of e-commerce is constantly evolving with new tools, technologies and business models that are challenging the status quo. Setting up an e-commerce business is easier than ever before,” he said.
Hasan also combined his business and full-time studying with a placement year at oil giant ExxonMobil.
“It helped me in deciding what career I want to have, and it greatly increased my chances of getting accepted into very competitive graduate schemes,” he said.
After graduating, Hasan was accepted onto the New Entrepreneurs Foundation Fast Track Programme. He is now working as a data scientist.
“A lot of people go to university not knowing what they are trying to achieve and then leave with tens of thousands of pounds in debt and limited career prospects,” he said.
“To avoid this, my biggest three suggestions would be to gain relevant work experience from early on in your degree, push yourself outside your zone of comfort and try varied pursuits until you find out what you enjoy the most, and most importantly surround yourself with smart people who will help and support you in becoming the best version of yourself.”
In 2018, a Santander report found that a quarter of students run, or plan to run their own company. Student enterprises collectively generate revenues of £1bn a year, and a third plan to turn their business into a career when they graduate. And some universities offer mentorship and support programmes to help budding campus entrepreneurs.
Anglia Ruskin University, for example, runs and academy which offers seminars, networking events, grants, and pitching clinics for students.
It also holds an annual competition, where students can develop a business plan and pitch for funding.
The scheme allowed Chiyedza Heri to pitch her own business. She was studying Biomedical Science.
“My parents had encouraged me to take the sciences route. Initiatives [like this one] showed me that if other students like me, not studying business, can try out ideas, what’s stopping me?” she says.
Chiyedza pitched several ideas, including a research company that would identify herbs used in Zimbabwean medicine and a herbal medicine company. In the end she settled on selling African herbal tea.
Although she didn’t win the prize money, she had a business plan and valuable experience to use when starting her own company.
“Initially I really focused on the health benefits and the bells and whistles,” she says. “Through feedback and mentoring I learnt to tailor a pitch to the audience.”
“Students now appreciate that it doesn’t matter what discipline they are studying – they all have the chance of being entrepreneurial. And setting up their own business is no longer a plan, for many it is their main aim,” says Marcia Baldry, enterprise support manager at the academy.
Five top tips on how to get work experience at university
- It’s important to get the balance right – most universities recommend less than 15 hours a week, so make sure your work experience is flexible, and scheduled around your studies.
- Speak to your university or college for advice about work experience while you study – possibly on-campus in the library, at open days, or with the students’ union.
- If you have definite career plans, you may be able to find work experience that is directly relevant. Otherwise, you can gain a variety of skills with a temporary job.
- Getting a part-time job can improve your confidence, build your skills to increase your employability, and offers the opportunity to meet new people. Retail, admin, restaurants, bars, telesales, or market research are all popular choices.
- Finding opportunities isn’t always easy, so it’s good to start thinking about work experience early. You can search for current roles online or contact local businesses directly.