'IRL': Why summer jobs & work experience are as important as education

  • Emma Finamore
  • 29 Jul 2018

Almost two-thirds of business leaders (62%) still regard experience and technical skills as the most important considerations for new hires.

This month the government highlighted the importance of young people having jobs and experience in the workplace, with the launch of its ‘Find a Job’ campaign to get teenagers working over the summer holidays, and placing 20,000 posts on its accompanying website.

Despite the benefits of part-time work, the number of teenagers working while studying has more than halved since 1997; the percentage of young people having part-time jobs or working over the summer, while at school or college, has dropped from 42% to 18%.

These young people should think again about jobs like this: as well as the obvious (a pay cheque) they can give you a big advantage when trying to fund full-time work further down the road.  

UK recruiting firm Robert Half found in recent research that almost two-thirds of business leaders (62%) still regard experience and technical skills as the most important considerations for new hires. This is despite the fact that almost nine in 10 leaders (87%) had found that in practice the most successful hires happened when they evaluated cultural fit – including congruent values, beliefs and outlook – as well as potential, during the hiring process.

Time in the workplace – part-time or summer jobs, or work experience – also helps people develop essential ‘soft skills’ through their working relationships with their employees, colleagues and customers.

These are incredibly important for any future jobs a young person might embark upon (as well as making them more likely to impress at interview and be offered jobs in the first place), qualities like effective teamwork, communications, negotiating skills, ability to work under pressure, customer service, and problem-solving.

These are attributes that employers desperately want in young recruits, and are often what people say university graduates are missing, despite their academic credentials. Two-thirds of employers say experience is important when recruiting, and young people who have had part-time jobs tend to earn 12-15%more than those who did not.

Statistics even show that as well as providing extra cash, part-time jobs increase the likelihood of teenagers and children finding work later in life.

At the same time as the rate of working teenagers drops, university degrees (what many young people are working so hard to get onto) are actually becoming less valuable and therefore less likely to make you stand out to potential employers – even when it comes to the highest grades. First class degrees were awarded to more than a quarter of all graduates last year, new figures show.

The relentless grade inflation in university degrees means the proportion of firsts has risen by more than 40 per cent in just four years. They were awarded to 18% of university leavers in 2013 and 26% of those leaving last summer.

It devalues the elite grade that was given to only 8% of graduates in 1995. The proportion of those getting a first or 2:1 rose from 68% in 2012-13 to 75% in 2016-17 (77% of women and 72% of men), according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

This means job applicants need other evidence of what they could offer prospective employers, something else in their back pocket to shine at jobs interviews: being able to refer to real workplace experience, evidencing the ability to hold down a job, and having extra skills developed on the job could be the ticket to success.

UK recruiting firm Robert Half found in recent research that almost two-thirds of business leaders (62%) still regard experience and technical skills as the most important considerations for new hires. This is despite the fact that almost nine in 10 leaders (87%) had found that in practice the most successful hires happened when they evaluated cultural fit – including congruent values, beliefs and outlook – as well as potential, during the hiring process.

Summer jobs & part-time work

Young people should take summer holiday jobs to prepare themselves for the workplace and to get a head start in life, the minister for work and pensions secretary Esther McVey said this month.

She believes summer jobs provide vital skills, as well as equipping people so they (and the nation) can thrive in a post-Brexit Britain.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, McVey warned a “cultural shift” has seen teenagers focus on education and training at the expense of earning extra money and gaining vital work experience.

McVey wrote: “As we enter this post-Brexit era, I want to make sure that young people are as prepared as ever for the workplace and I want to restore the merits that summer jobs can bring.” She acknowledged that while a summer job may not be “a dream job for life”, they are “firmly connected to having a successful future”.

Work experience

Work experience can give plenty of similar benefits to summer jobs and part-time work. It can be the factor that sets someone apart from the rest in the job market.

Young people are more likely to be successful in their search for employment if they have done some good work experience. Research has revealed that over half of the graduate recruiters say graduates who have had no previous work experience at all are unlikely to be successful during the selection process and have little or no chance of receiving a job offer for their organisations’ graduate programmes.

Doing work experience also shows passion and interest, demonstrating to the employer that someone is motivated to get into a chosen career and that they’ve done your homework. It also shows – especially with competitive sectors such as journalism, fashion and film – that someone has at least some level of ability, more than a school or university course can do.

Work experience is a perfect way to sample all the career options out there. It’s a way of exploring different jobs without actually committing to anything.  It’s also the best way to get a real sense of a chosen industry, once a young person has reached that decision. They won’t know what it’s really like until they get closer to the action.

Lastly, the opportunity to network is invaluable: it helps build up contacts and the company might even give people on work placements a heads up about a future job.


Apprenticeships can combine both jobs and qualifications, giving the benefits of both and eliminating the need to work on the side of study. On an apprenticeship, you’re paid to work and study at the same time.  

Take a Degree Apprenticeship, for example. While these programmes are the same as other apprenticeships in that people taking part in them are full-time, fully paid employees, spending at least 20% of their time on off-the- job training or learning, Degree Apprenticeships are especially exciting as they offer a way for school leavers to get a full bachelor’s or master’s university degree, completely for free. Plus, the salaries of Degree Apprentices are impressive: often around £14,000 to £18,000 a year.

While on other apprenticeships the off-the-job element often takes place in a further education college or at a training provider, with Degree Apprenticeships this takes place in a university setting, studying towards a degree.

Not only do they offer the chance to achieve a degree without the burden of debt (employers pay the tuition fees, while the government pays for training) but those completing Degree Apprenticeships are especially employable, as each programme has been designed with the industry’s needs in mind.

Groups of businesses, universities and colleges – called ‘trailblazers’ – develop bespoke degree courses that allow students to build up skills and experience relevant to that particular industry, making them very employable in the future.

The Degree Apprenticeship standard developed to help people become chartered – or professional – managers, for example, was developed by organisations like the BBC, the Civil Service, Sainsburys, the Co-Op, and Virgin

Media. The aerospace engineer Degree Apprenticeship standard was developed by organisations like BAE Systems, Airbus, and Rolls Royce, while the digital and technology solutions Degree Apprenticeship was created by businesses such as BT, CGI, Ford, HMRC, IBM and John Lewis.

This involvement of ‘real life’ professionals in developing programmes means that Degree Apprenticeships give you the exact skills that are required by the industry, right now. And it is different to many standard university degrees, developed by academics, based more in theory than in practice and current, real-life experience.

Degree apprentices will often be offered a job with their employer at the end of the programme, but even if that’s not the case – or if they decide to move on – graduates of these programmes will have a very attractive, specific set of skills and qualifications with which to progress in their chosen industry.

Another advantage of a Degree Apprenticeship is the working relationships that apprentices forge with their employees and colleagues, developing the so-called ‘soft skills’ – effective teamwork, communications, negotiating skills, ability to work under pressure, problem-solving – that employers so desperately want in young recruits.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters (the AGR) did research with 174 organisations last year about the quality of candidates coming straight out of university, from standard university degree courses.

The chief executive of the AGR, Stephen Isherwood, said at the time that employers reported a lack of people skills and a “fundamental understanding” of the world of work, as well as lacking “the ability to work with people and get things done when things go wrong”.

The skills that standard university graduates often lack, despite their academic credentials, are ones that are developed during the workplace element of a Degree Apprenticeship, so the young people completing these programmes are armed with a desirable, and quite rare, skills set alongside their university qualification.

For example, earlier this year AllABoutSchoolLeavers spoke to someone who recently completed the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship at Nestle and has benefited hugely from it.

She told us the combination of work and study was particularly useful, as it meant she could immediately apply the theory she was learning to the real- life workplace, but also use skills and knowledge picked up in the workplace during her studies.

She also told us that – while juggling study and work is a challenge – with support from her employer she is now reaping the rewards of that hard work, as Nestlé have put in place clear channels for their apprenticeship graduates to follow after they’ve completed their programmes – like a traditional graduate scheme, but taking people from their own programme rather than a university course not linked with the business.

Another degree apprentice – this time from professional services firm Capgemini – told us that being on the programme didn’t mean missing out on the fun and night life of a normal student experience, it just means a bit more structure than some normal degree programmes.

He also told us that establishing routine and structure straight away – which is what happens on a Degree Apprenticeship, working full time and having your university learning and study built into your working week or month – actually helps with your time management skills, which he said lots of standard students really struggle with.

The extra support you get as a Degree Apprentice – with your employer being involved as well as your university course leaders, seminar tutors and lecturers – means that you set yourself up for a good degree result too. The Capgemini programme, for example, saw 64% of their graduates achieving a first in their degrees. This compares to 25% (at the most) of people completing standard university degree courses.

But degree apprenticeships don’t just benefit apprentices – they are also extremely advantageous to the employers who take the time to set them up.

The programme manager of that same apprenticeship at Nestle told us that people graduating from these programmes are already rivalling their colleagues that have come from standard university courses because they have such a rounded experience – from working in the business at the same time as studying for their degrees – and are already able to make informed, intelligent, and most of all practical, business recommendations.

It's young people like this that employers want, not just those with the best school grades or university degrees, so bear that in mind this summer: 'IRL' is just as important as what you do in the classroom or exam hall. 


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