Work experience? You need experience for that

By Michaela Walters, April 5, 2012
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Jewish students around the UK are increasingly choosing to go to university when they finish school. In fact, it is now rather rare to hear of a Jewish student choosing otherwise.

However this means a degree is most certainly no longer enough to secure you the job of your dreams - or any job for that matter. As a result, many are finding it increasingly difficult to achieve employment once they have graduated – a top degree from a top university just isn't enough. And graduates are repeatedly hearing that they need those two dreaded words: work experience.

But why are they words to dread? In the past unpaid work experience was thought of as the perfect way to break the vicious cycle of "without experience you can't get a job, without a job you can't get experience". It allows students to gain basic skills and build up their CVs, making them more attractive to potential employers.

However, in today's shrinking job market, work experience, even unpaid work experience, has become almost as difficult to come by as a full time, fully paid job.

Because of the ever rising demand for work experience, the students most likely to gain the placements are the ones that have previous, yes, you guessed it, experience. And so there is an even more disturbing vicious cycle: You need work experience to gain work experience.

Only a few weeks ago I contacted my local newspaper and asked if it would be possible to come in for a week or two, as I am pursuing a career in journalism and would like to enhance my knowledge of the industry. A reasonable enquiry, I thought.

The man on the other end of the phone politely replied: "We tend to offer work experience to people that have shown previous commitment to the media industry".

"I understand", I said, "and what could I do to show my commitment to the media industry?"

"Well, you could gain some work experience".

To my dismay, the majority of my enquiries into work experience have followed the same illogical structure.

Often when it comes to work experience the already established members of the Jewish community try to take care of the younger members. Many of my friends, hoping to become accountants or lawyers, have been lucky enough to have an uncle, a friend's dad, or a grandpa's brother's friend's cousin with their own firm or a spot high up in one. These people are invariably willing to offer the desperate student a two-week placement.

However, for the Jewish students around the UK (myself included) struggling with the tedious and long-winded applications larger companies ask you to complete for their structured work experience schemes, the process is not as simple.

There exists a long and winding road of online applications, telephone interviews and assessment centres before the chance of sitting down and actually having a conversation with the potential employer, face-to-face, like two human beings.

But just as problematic is the position of many Jewish students living in communities such as Liverpool or Leeds. For so many opportunities, especially those with the larger established companies are limited to the capital.

If fortunate enough to gain a placement, the challenge is far from over. After turning your wardrobe upside down to find anything that slightly resembles office attire, the fear of how you will be treated and how you'll fare for the next two weeks then kicks in.

From the many hilarious stories that my friends have shared with me, it seems that there are two ends of the scale, running from doormat – where you will make tea and photocopy all day (not the insightful experience that you were hoping for – or even an experience at all) – to being treated like the chief executive, expected to know everything about everything, from the yearly turnover to where they keep the staples. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it gives an idea of the challenge young job-hunters face.

So what is a job hungry graduate hoping to gain work experience to do? Well, it's not all doom and gloom.

I am fortunate enough to be writing this as an intern at the Jewish Chronicle, a placement I secured after applying by email, and it really has been worthwhile. And so my experience – that dreaded word – tells me that we have to persevere. Carry on making those phone calls and sending those emails. It is simply a numbers game. Once you gain that first placement, it could be the beginning of your career.

Michaela Walters is studying philosophy at Birmingham University. Follow her on Twitter here.

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Last updated: 3:07pm, April 5 2012