The clue is in the phrase, work experience was initially created for students and young professionals to gain experience in that career field or industry. Students are most likely to initially undergo a placement whilst they are 15 or 16 at school, as a compulsory week of their school year. This placement is usually forced, enjoyed as a ‘week off school’, and not taken extremely seriously.
However, the idea that work experience is there to really make you learn, understand and see if you would like to go further in this industry is not always the case. That is the initial reason why people go on work experience: will you actually enjoy it? What is it like? Can you see yourself working there? For some, this might hit them with a realisation that no, this isn’t what they want to do for the rest of their lives. But can one week of experience really tell you that?
For me, although it’s not the best thing to admit, work experience was more important simply to put on my CV. I wanted to show that I was determined to get experience in this industry, take time out for myself and off my own back to find out. Although what really happened, was me paying expenses to travel to and from each publication for a week and really not learning a lot. This was by no means for all my placements, but the vast majority of them. I can think of two placements where I came out with published work, learnt more about the structure of feature writing, and felt myself indulged in the work of a journalist for one week. However, I can think of a fair few where I came out no better than I did when I went in there. Yes I saw ‘behind the scenes’ of the publication, but I learnt nothing more.
This doesn’t always reflect badly on the company you go to work for, but more the amount of time you are there for. The placements I learnt nothing from I was keen for the week to be over, and the ones that went well I felt I was just getting my teeth into before my time was up. Sometimes it is understandable that it is not feasible to work longer than a week for free, and I guess one of the reasons internships were ‘created’ was because it does allow you to really understand the workings of the publication behind the scenes.
On day one of work experience you are usually introduced, taken for a tour, told to read some back issues of the magazine. By day four, you have been given tasks to do and come in the next morning knowing you have work to do and things to complete. You leave on day five on a cliffhanger, yes you’ve helped but you haven’t crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s, and yet it’s your time to leave. When I completed a longer work experience placement over the summer before my NCTJ, the first week taught me nothing, the second week wasn’t much different but weeks three, four and five really were. I learnt a lot, it really opened my eyes up to the responsibilities I would need to take on if I were to work in this industry. Luckily, it was paid.
This leaves us with the ever popular ‘intership’ dilemma, which for the majority, I don’t agree with. I’m not saying work your socks off for free for three months, but if you have the chance to do a work experience placement for longer than a week, go for it. I think that second or third week could teach you more than all those odd ‘weeks’ you do in different publications.
One last thing… if you enjoy it, keep in contact! You never know what opportunities may arise in the future.