How to get the most out of your work placement or skills-based volunteering

by - 10:00


The first time I did any kind of work experience was when I was in year 10 at secondary school (aged 14, for any non-Brits) where I worked at our local library. Since then, I've undertaken another work experience placement, and, as of this year, three volunteering positions with organisations which are relevant to the career that I'm trained for having finished my Masters degree back in October.

Young people in the UK are constantly advised to volunteer or go on work experience to improve our CVs and become more employable, and I'm sure it's the same for young people everywhere. Here are some of my top tips for getting the most out of your volunteering or work placements so that all your unpaid time and hard work is worth it. To be clear, I'm discussing specifically skills-based volunteering - i.e. volunteering which is directly related to the career you're working towards, or your degree - rather than working on a voluntary basis purely for charitable purposes.

1) Show up on time and dress appropriately.

Yes, this is super basic. It's also absolutely imperative if you're going to make your placement worthwhile. It's an important workplace skill, and besides, you may not be allowed to finish your placement if you don't meet the company's expectations.

2) Identify what you want to get out of your placement, and, if applicable, what you can give back to the company.

Think about what you want to learn, what new skills you want to gain, what aspects of the business you would like to gain experience of. If you're doing a degree or college course, or if you're already working in the same industry that you're volunteering in, what pre-existing skills can you use to benefit the company while you're working with them? Can you make any suggestions that might improve an aspect of the business? If you're still at school or you have no experience of the industry that you're volunteering in, you may not be able to contribute in the same way - but you can definitely focus on being a functional member of the company. If you're allowed to do some work, do it to the best of your ability. If you're limited to observation only, be a good observer; listen carefully and ask polite questions.

3) Keep a journal of everything you do on your placement.

This will come in really handy when you come to writing CVs, applications, or personal statements, and when you're preparing for job interviews. You might need to know what dates you worked to and from, or the name of a specific technique you learnt. Not a problem as long as you wrote it all down.

4) Ask questions.

Make sure you use your placement to its full potential, and get what you want out of the experience. Ask how things work, why things happen, where things are kept. If there's something specific you want to learn, make sure you ask about it.

5) Network.

When I started university I was "painfully shy" (that's a direct quote from one of my tutors), but talking and interacting with the other members of staff is really important, especially if you think you might want a job with that company later on. There's always a chance someone might pass your name onto another company, or keep you in mind if they have a vacancy.

6) Follow up.

When you're finished your placement, drop the company an email and thank them for having you. If you really enjoyed your placement, let them know - tell them you'd love to come and volunteer again for them sometime, or if you're currently jobhunting, ask them if they might have any upcoming vacancies you could apply for.

7) Keep in touch.

I go to quite a lot of conferences where I'm able to reconnect with people I've met elsewhere. Writing someone a quick email to ask if they'll be at a particular event or popping over to say hi during a coffee break will help people to remember you and might give you the edge over someone else when you apply for a job.  

If you have any other tips, leave them in the comments so I can see, and if you have any questions about this type of skills-based volunteering or work experience I will do my best to answer them.

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  1. These are all great tips, especially the last two. I'm starting placement next week for my Masters degree and am pretty nervous!

    1. Good luck with it, I'm sure it'll be great :)

  2. Excellent advice. I'll never forget my work experience training in high school (it was in grade 10 for me as well). At the time I deeply wanted to become a professional chef, so I opted to be placed in the busy kitchen of the restaurant at our town's only casino and one of the largest hotels. It was grueling work (including one day that involved peeling ice cold shrimp for hours - I don't think my hands have ever been that cold before or since!), but I loved every second of it. I'll never forget how tired I was after the first day though. I fell asleep on the couch before dinner and didn't get up until my mom woke me the next morning. I learned a lot from that experience and was grateful for it when I entered the workforce a mere year later.

    ♥ Jessica

  3. Good advice indeed! Kids don't want to volunteer their way into a job they want to be paid right away. But employers lean towards experience when hiring and if you've volunteered before, to me it means your serious about what you want. It's exactly how my son got his first job. Spent some serious time volunteering for a local organic farmer and a couple of months later he was hired.

    1. I agree with most of what you say Debra, but you can't blame people for wanting to get paid. I've clocked up a serious amount of hours volunteering - I started before I'd graduated from my undergraduate degree and am still volunteering now having finished my Masters degree. I am enjoying the work and I'm gaining a lot of experience which is always a good thing - but you can't eat or pay bills with experience and no money.