By the time I reached Sixth Form College, I remember being embarrassed that I had never held a part-time job or so much as a paper-round.
My CV, if I even had one, included great grades and that was about it… apart from my Duke of Edinburgh Award.
Back in school, my parents had always encouraged me to focus on my studies. I was in the very fortunate position of never needing to work for money.
Without this pressure, I simply never got around to it. While many of my friends were working in the local supermarkets, I’d be doing my homework, reading, writing or just playing video games.
If I took this luxury for granted at the time, I can now look back on it and appreciate how lucky I was to be financially supported. At the same time, I also now view this as something of a disadvantage, as I believe starting work a lot younger would have helped me to get ahead.
The No Work Experience Dilemma
A lot of young people find themselves in the same position I was in when I finally wanted to search for part-time work: I had an empty resume with no work experience.
Climbing onto that first rung of the ladder can be extremely difficult when even shelf-stacking jobs ask for prior experience and you are up against 20 other candidates in your year group who have been working since the age of 16.
I remember the first summer where my mum marched me around town handing out copies of my CV, writing cover letters and scouring job sites. For someone with straight As and A*s at GCSE, I was really demoralised to find that not even the local garden centre would have me for a month of lugging around plant pots.
To find yourself with no work experience in college when you want a part-time job is one thing. To graduate from university with no so-called “real” work experience (AKA not bar work) is a greater challenge still and far too common.
There are a number of reasons people find themselves in this position about to graduate.
For a few, it does come down to pure laziness or entitlement. The mistaken belief that a 2.1 will be enough in the graduate market.
For many, it stems from a lack of direction. Often internships and placements lead you down specific career paths. If you don’t have one in mind, it can be easy to miss out on them altogether.
For me – and I’m sure others out there – my excuse for a lack of work experience upon graduation was due to banking on doing a Masters afterwards. When you decide to stay within academia, getting conventional experience in an office seems less important.
The trouble with this is situations change. When my plan to do a Masters fell through half-way through my third year, I was left high and dry, facing unemployment.
The good news is I was able to turn my fortune around in just 2 months. In fact, there are a whole host of options available to anyone lacking work experience. You don’t need to be a graduate or a school-leaver to build up your CV.
It’s never too late.
Volunteering, groups and activities
If you have been to university, you will be familiar with the idea of joining a society, whether it’s an obscure sport like korfball or a hobby like rock-climbing. It doesn’t matter what it is, getting involved in something can look good on your CV.
For me, korfball has always proven a talking point at interviews because I have to explain what it is.
If you have the chance to get involved in the running of a club, then even better. A small commitment like showing up to a monthly meeting or organising a bake sale can be a great substitute for work experience as it shows a level of commitment and organisation.
I ended up going into digital marketing partly off the back of running my sports club’s social media for two years. You never know where things can lead.
Yet you don’t need to go to university to build up your CV in this way.
If your hobby is running, then finding a local running club and helping out can work just the same. If anything, taking initiative and being outgoing – outside of the saturated university setting – will stand out more.
When I was getting rejected for part-time jobs back in the summer holidays of Sixth Form, I turned to volunteering at my local charity shop.
It was a rewarding experience that was greatly appreciated by the staff. I learned many of the same skills I would have in a similar retail environment – only with more flexible working hours.
If you find yourself struggling in your school holidays, I would recommend doing the same as it’s far better to be busy and helpful than moping around at home.
Internships and placements
I cannot emphasise the value of internships enough. I owe my current job to one and know many friends and recent graduates that can say the same.
While at university, I completed three very different internships.
The first was unpaid for a non-profit charity. I worked something like 3 days a week for 6 weeks. I found that the charity was hiring online and originally applied for a different position. After a phone interview, they offered me an alternative role.
That summer, I juggled the unpaid internship with volunteering one day a week and part-time work for another. It was an unconventional 9-5.
I was only paid for 1/5 of my time but nonetheless, I added three entries to my CV and sealed not one but three valuable references.
If you are finding it difficult to secure full-time work on a short-term contract, combining flexible options can actually strengthen your CV even more.
Be sure to leverage your university’s connections
If you are at university and lacking work experience, in my eyes, the very first thing you should do is check to see if your university has an internship scheme.
These schemes leverage relationships with local companies who are keen to hire young talent. They help protect students against bad contracts and often guarantee a minimum level of pay.
For me, the Excel Internship Scheme at the University of Southampton was a game-changer.
In the summer I graduated, I landed two 4 week paid internships. I earned more money than I had ever made before. More importantly than that, I was offered a full-time job out of the former (a company I am still working for 2 years on) and was re-hired by the latter employer on a freelance basis since too.
Without leveraging the university’s links to local businesses, I would never have found or secured these opportunities. You are paying for their reputation – make the most of it.
My only regret is that I didn’t pursue internships earlier during my studies, leaving it to the last summer of my graduation. Don’t do the same.
Had I utilised both Easter and Summer placements, I could have accumulated a full 12 months of work experience, for at least 6 different employers, all during my 3-year degree, and earned over a staggering £13,000 to offset my student debt.
Anyone at university could do the same.
How much easier would finding a graduate job be?
Prove Yourself Working For Free
If all else fails when hunting for a job or building your CV, work for free.
When you apply for a role with no relevant experience to speak of, you can understand why someone might not want to trust or pay you. But when you approach that same employer and offer to do the same work for free – for a trial period of say a couple of weeks – you invite a very different response.
Suddenly your time and willingness becomes an asset to them.
They have nothing really to lose and you have everything to gain.
It’s important to realise that it doesn’t matter whether work experience on your CV was paid or not. Very rarely would you need to specify, and even if you did, your willingness to work for free should only be admired by prospective employers.
I am a firm believer that the best way to get a job at your dream organisation, or test-pilot different career paths, is to offer your services for free (short-term).
When someone isn’t paying you anything, they aren’t expecting much either. It becomes a lot easier to impress and ultimately get your foot in the door for a paid position.
There’s a reason interns often take up paid roles and spots on graduate schemes.
Those are my thoughts on what to do when you have no work experience from someone who has been in that position before.
If you are interested in learning more about the perks of working for free, I covered it in an earlier post. Happy CV writing and job hunting!