Getting Creative About Gaining Work Experience

It's really no surprise that employers want candidates with work experience that help demonstrate employability skills. Why wouldn't they? With so many unemployed and underemployed people, employers have the luxury of being very selective.
Work experience is the key
College graduates may make themselves more marketable with paid or unpaid experience on their resume in addition to their degree. Students in online degree programs can also make time in their academic schedule to gain the same type of work experience as traditional students through internships. Jodi Shirley was in the elementary education field for years when she decided she wanted to work in criminal justice. She knew work experience would be the key to moving into her new career. Plus, her school required a 120-hour internship. She works full-time, attends school and has a family with three very active teens. None of that stopped her.
"I waited until summer break and worked at the local police department," Shirley says. "I started working there the first day I was on vacation and worked 8:30 to 5 every day, with no pay, in the records department.”
For Shirley, it was worth every minute.
Working in the evidence department wasn't exactly what I wanted to do, but in the same building I had exposure to parole and probation, criminal investigation and 911 communications," she says. "With a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, I could go in many career directions and this internship allowed me to work in and observe several of them.”
Leading to a full-time position
This kind of unpaid work experience has other benefits for job seekers too.
"Many people have gotten jobs based on the networking contacts they created while volunteering," says Kimberly Baker, Program Manager at Bryant & Stratton College Online. "Your professional networks may give you an 'in' to unadvertised jobs, so it is important to build a network in the new field."
Internships are a popular way to gain this experience. In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 63 percent of paid interns in the class of 2012 had at least one job offer when they graduated. Of those who did not have an internship on their resumes, only about 40 percent had an offer. But official internships are not the only way to get started, general work experience is the key and students can earn that in many different ways.
Online students should be creative
"Our online students participate in capstones instead of internships. Other students can look for volunteer opportunities in order to get the same benefits," Baker says. "While you may have some general skills to offer, make a point of figuring out what important skills you don't have and ask your supervisor to include those skills in your internship or volunteer tasks."
The most competitive job seekers will be the ones who can obtain a variety of meaningful experiences to develop employability skills, so it is ok to be creative.
"Go to the chamber of commerce and network with small business owners. Often, they need all the same help as a large business but cannot afford to hire full-time people," says Abby Kohut, career consultant and recruiter. "Offer them your services for a low rate and a small number of hours each week. Back office skill sets like marketing, accounting and IT work great with this approach and these skills are needed across all industries.”
Establish your credibility and get motivated
So, whether you call it an internship, volunteer work, a practicum, field work or a co-op, get all the benefits you can out of your work experiences. Don't forget that this type of work can help you establish credibility in your field and visibility if you intern someplace at which you eventually want to work. And that's still not all that's in it for you.
"I learned more than I expected and more than what the books could teach me," Shirley says. “I can put these experiences on my resume and talk about them in an interview or when I am networking. Not to mention, I enjoyed it so much that it really motivated me to get on the application process like never before."