With an increasing focus on the career progression of graduates, both through the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Government’s productivity plan, HEFCE’s Skills team has been working with the sector to explore the value of work experience.

As a senior policy adviser in the Skills team, I’ve spent time reflecting on my own work experience. Did I know at 18, or 22 after graduation, that I would find a fulfilling career in public policy? Did I identify the skills I would need for that career and then set out to develop them? How did I get the right skills? This post explores the value of work experience and shares with you the journey I took.

Do graduates have the right skills?

There is evidence that graduates lack ‘employability’ skills: not only subject-specific knowledge, but also softer skills like commercial awareness, effective communication and an ability to work in a team.

The UKCES Employer Skills Survey 2015 claims that skill-shortage vacancies present a growing challenge for employers.

And Universities UK’s most recent Supply and Demand for Higher Level Skills report projects that by 2022 there will be more jobs demanding graduates than there will be qualified graduates.

Sandwich placements may be part of the solution, since such students tend to have an easier time getting a job after their degrees. This is evidenced by the STEM accreditation reviews published in May 2016. These demonstrated a strong correlation between sandwich placements and graduate employability

But what about other types of work experience? Can shorter or less formal work experiences help employability in a similar way? Is employment success only those post-graduation jobs which relate directly to degrees?

My employability journey

Like many or even most people, I never set out to develop a skillset that would help me develop a career. But my parents always emphasised the importance of hard work, reinforced through an expectation that I work part-time from the age of 14 to earn my own spending money and contribute to saving for my university education.

I continued to work part-time at university: as a lifeguard in the summers and at retail shops during term time. These jobs weren’t related to any budding career aspirations. However, they were helping me develop a range of life skills: managing my time, handling increased responsibility, being accountable to others, and learning that particular satisfaction associated with being financially independent.

Though I studied Journalism in university, I realised part-way through that I wasn’t cut out to be a journalist. After university, I held a series of odd jobs: a display designer in a department store; an Okarina shaper; a personal assistant to a tax attorney; a tasting room manager at a winery; a server in several restaurants.

I worked to fund my love of travelling, and after some years, I realised that working in restaurants utilised my strongest skills – and I also loved that environment. I spent nearly a decade building a restaurant career, only to trade it in for a change in direction when I was 30. A change that led me back to higher education and landed me, eventually, in a senior post at HEFCE.

So, was it all worthwhile?

In retrospect, every single job I did taught me valuable lessons and made me into the person I am today. They taught me what I liked, what I was good at, what to steer clear of (I’m not a great Okarina maker if I’m honest). They taught me to pick myself up when I get knocked down (I was fired from my first two jobs out of university). They taught me what I wanted to find in my working life: work that I enjoyed, that filled me or pushed me or shaped me – and that gave me something more than money.

I am not alone in acknowledging the development value of the kind of path I took. The Shadbolt review of graduate employability in computer science highlights the particular importance of work experience in improving not only employability, but also in shaping graduates’ expectations about the world of work.

To me, this means there is an imperative to help students engage with the types of stumbling blocks I’ve experienced. It means encouraging them to be accountable to others, to increase their ability to take on responsibility, to show up on time, to try out new things. To learn what they like and what they don’t – before they settle on a career.

After all, a career isn’t made by one decision. It’s made by a series of decisions that ultimately create a path that’s often only clear in hindsight. But clear isn’t the same as straight. In my view, a career is a long, winding road. It goes up and down and can sometimes even go back on itself. But there is immense value in those bends.

Share your story

Everyone who works with students should consider how best to encourage them to approach the world of work. Increasing work experience opportunities for our students is imperative to helping them develop the life skills that are needed outside of academia. Sharing our own stories – as I have done here – is a powerful way of demonstrating to them the possibilities they can’t yet imagine. It allows us to inspire the first few steps of a graduate’s own journey – and what a privilege that is.