Work experience students are an easy target. Baggy-shirted and spotty-faced, they quickly become the butt of many an office joke. They bound through the door, Monday morning, 9am, eagerly shaking hands, anticipating an endless list of important tasks to be performed. Watch that enthusiasm fade around 9.15 when they are assigned a more humble role: […]

Work experience students are an easy target. Baggy-shirted and spotty-faced, they quickly become the butt of many an office joke. They bound through the door, Monday morning, 9am, eagerly shaking hands, anticipating an endless list of important tasks to be performed. Watch that enthusiasm fade around 9.15 when they are assigned a more humble role: Head Tea Maker.

It’s tempting to dismiss work experience as pointless – a source of equal irritation for both the already-busy employees, who now have to find extra jobs for the student, and for the student who, if they’re being honest, would probably rather be at home playing Xbox. But pointless it most certainly is not. In these straitened times, where jobs are scarce and degree qualifications are as common as Kerry Katona, work experience is the best way to brighten up a dull CV.

Perhaps the best thing about work experience is that it does exactly what it says on the tin. Without it, it would be entirely possible to spend the years between the ages of 5 and 21 simply hopping from classroom to classroom – from school, to college, to university – without ever truly sampling the real world. Work experience helps with the transition from the bubble of education to the bathtub of employment – a place where paper is for printing on rather than making aeroplanes with, where it’s no longer acceptable to answer the phone with the phrase “Easy mate, how’s it going?”

For many students, an internship* will be the first time they’ve ever set foot in an office, and so the first time they’ve ever witnessed one of the more fascinating facets of human behaviour: office politics. It’s a strange governmental system which makes Homo sapiens regress to the state of grumpy, gossipy, caffeine-addicted apes. Where else but in an office could you see grown men sulk because they stepped in a puddle on their way to work and ruined their new tan brogues? Where else could you develop such exacting taste in coffee that you can accurately tell the difference between Nicaraguan and Brazilian? Where else could you discover that Horny Alice gave the boss a drunken lap dance at the Christmas do?

(*Note: ‘Internship’ is one of those dreadful American words which somehow managed to find its way into the British lexicon. Let’s put a stop to this now please, before we all start driving on freeways, turning things counter-clockwise and cheering for Sheffield Wednesday Soccer Club.)

Of course, work experience isn’t always a bed of roses. Students should expect to be taken out of their comfort zones, but sometimes they’re unprepared for just how far removed they become. This writer recently completed a week-long placement at a local newspaper, where he was told about his predecessor, who had a crippling fear of dogs. His first assignment? Interview a police dog trainer… and his vicious furry companion. That’s irony on an Alanis Morissette level.

At the other end of the scale is the most tedious aspect of work experience – ‘shadowing’. This may sound like some exciting ninja activity, but disappointingly it just means staring over somebody’s shoulder while they do their work. Admittedly this would be a brilliant thing to do if your placement was with, say, the Moscow State Circus – at a recruitment agency in Broomhill, not so much.

It’s worth noting that the types of work experience available vary by profession. Marketing and advertising students are often offered year-long paid placements, earning salaries of around £14,000 – definitely not to be sniffed at. For those looking to work in areas such as politics and the media, anything longer than a week is rare, and the chances of receiving any form of reimbursement are slimmer than a Hollywood swimwear model. It’s easy to be put off by this, particularly if you have to shell out for things like train fares just to get to your placement. But it’s important to remember the reasons for doing work experience in the first place – namely to improve your employment prospects and prevent you from ending up on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Securing a placement can be a struggle at times, especially in our current state of economic doom and gloom. If you’re planning on applying, be prepared to face rejection. It is, after all, a competitive world out there. But if and when you do score some work experience, make sure you make the most of it. A little effort goes a long way, and even if you don’t have a job offer at the end of your placement, at least you’ll have gained some new employment-friendly skills. For one thing, you’ll have learned how to make a proper cuppa.

Adam Kay.