Techniques to Gain Professional Work Experience

The Volunteer Intern Technique

So what do you do if you already missed the doing the internship thing? The Volunteer Intern Technique is a great technique for college students who still lack "real-world" work experience to gain that experience, even in the final year of college. If you missed the opportunity to formally intern or gain work experience in your field during your earlier years of college, you still have a chance to get that experience, up to (and after) graduation. To gain that experience, you may want to consider volunteering. Yes, volunteer. No pay. Gratis. Why? Because as a volunteer intern in a career related position you will be getting as much as you are giving (and sometimes even more). Whereas some of your friends may have been able to land a paying internship during the preceding years, your best choice, if you are in your final year, is to give up some of your free time and volunteer. By volunteering, you have flexibility that might not otherwise be available to you. If you volunteer during the school year, try to put in at least eight hours per week (two mornings, two afternoons, two evenings or one weekend day per week is usually the minimum required for gaining experience that can later be referenced). And by volunteering you will have many more companies willing to take you on in exchange for gaining experience and further building your resume.

Many companies will be very willing to take on volunteer interns.There are plenty of not-for-profit organizations (such as schools, government agencies, associations and community service groups) that would appreciate your offer of service. The key is getting into a position where not only are you doing work, you are also working under someone else. Shadow the person, learn from their experience, and use the internship as advanced training for your upcoming professional life.

The net result is twofold: first, it will provide you with valuable experience to list on your resume, one that will pay back monetarily many times the dollar amount you "lost" by volunteering; second, your potential future employer may be right in front of you. You are now on the inside—so if you are interested in working for the company after graduation, let them know! Even if they do not have something in that particular department, they will usually feel a debt of gratitude and may be willing to help you find other job possibilities within the company. Or be willing to refer you to other employers and network contacts. As you have given to them, so they will likely give back to you in return.

A recent grad used this technique to go from being a very average job seeker to being one of the most sought after in his class. He had worked in outdoor physical labor his entire college career until the second semester of his Senior year, when he volunteered as a Networking Intern with the Telecommunications Department at the college. He worked there only three months, yet parlayed that experience into the resume experience he needed to compete for meaningful work. He got a job with a company that "wasn't hiring at the entry level" as its new Network Administrator. Remember, with his experience, he was no longer entry level. Pay does not matter. Experience does.

This technique can be used even after graduation to keep moving forward in gaining experience. Not only will you avoid lapses of time in your resume, you will have real experience to show for the time you have invested.

No experience? This is a quick and simple solution to the problem. A small sacrifice now, even late in your college career, can pay handsome rewards for years to come.

The Special Project Technique

Another excellent technique for filling in the gaps in the Experience section of your resume is the Special Project Technique. It works especially well if you can dovetail in a large project for one of your classes with a company that specifically interests you.

Choose a project that not only will fulfill the requirements of a class project assignment, but will also serve as a real-life simulation of work in the field. If there are no special projects on your class docket, you might try asking one of your professors to use this as a substitute for your final or as extra credit. Or you might seek approval of the Department Chair to make this an Independent Study project (often worth one to three credit hours). Choose an employer (or employers) where you have a strong interest and then begin your research into the company to gather as much basic information as possible. You have an open door for researching the company to which no other student has access because you are studying the company as a special project.

Here is an example script:

"I am in the process of completing a special project for my _____ class and have chosen your company to research. Could you please provide me with fifteen minutes to ask some questions and obtain some information?"

It's a natural entry into almost any company. Your academic approach to the company will usually have the information flowing forth from otherwise tight-lipped employees. In the process of gathering company information, you will also gather names and titles of key individuals in the organization. Because you are likely the only college student to be using the company specifically as the focus for a special project, you will put yourself in good standing for any job openings that might occur. You already have an inside track.

The net result is that you have killed three birds with one stone: you have met your academic needs via the project, you have greatly improved your resume (and your ability to talk about "real-world" experience), and you have gained access to a potential employer that interests you. It's win-win-win in all three areas!

A recent grad used this technique in his Senior Financial Management class and did a case study on the role of an investment banking firm in the recently completed merger of one of its clients. He developed an entire case study from what he felt would be the client's perspective in the merger, including an exploration of all potential concerns. Then he developed answers for each one of these concerns from the perspective of the investment banking firm. As it turned out, his uncanny knack for research scored a direct hit with the firm, and eventually they offered him a job after graduation in the Mergers and Acquisitions Group.

The Gig Technique

Have you ever bought an expensive outfit without first trying it on? Or bought a car without test driving it? Certainly not. And yet the standard in career selection is to pour thousands of dollars into training and schooling without first trying on the anticipated career for size to make sure it is a good fit. Seems rather silly, yet this is the process that millions of students stumble through, year after year.

Your best opportunity for truly understanding a particular job or industry is to try it on for a day, a week, a month, or a year. How? By temping (i.e. doing a gig) in the field. Working through a temporary staffing agency will give you the opportunity to develop real-world work experience while trying on your chosen field for size.

There are plenty of opportunities to work through temp agencies. The key is to be specific about your preference for positions within your chosen field. Be specific, yet not picky. Working at the desk next to your target position is often just as profitable as sitting behind that desk. Temping often works best over summer break, but also can be used during fall, winter, and spring break. And if you are extremely productive, you may be given the opportunity to continue part-time while classes are in session.

This is a classic win-win situation. You have the opportunity to view your chosen field from the inside. The employer has low-cost, temporary labor to fill in the gaps. And in the best of all possible worlds, you may find your future employer.