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It is the Catch-22 situation that has been frustrating jobseekers for ages: positions requiring experience from applicants, while applicants can’t gain any experience without first having had a job.
But there are ways to make oneself employable and gain experience without having landed a position in formal employment first, an education expert says.
Dr Felicity Coughlan, director of the Independent Institute of Education, a private education provider which focuses heavily on ensuring the job-readiness of their graduates, says what employers are looking for in many instances is just to be given proof that someone is able to self-manage and that a candidate can be trusted to make a contribution from as early as possible.
“The experience requirement is an attempt to ensure new employees are productive as early possible. This makes good sense, and while there are good reasons to be training new people, it is always helpful to have someone who has done something before,” says Coughlan.
“If you are studying and about to graduate, you need to be looking at all the ways you can fill the experience gap right away.”
In order to do so, students must analyse the kind of work they intend to do and then look for opportunities to build appropriate experience in that niche.
“For instance, if you are studying a journalism qualification, volunteering to run a student newspaper or getting involved in putting together newsletters for local NGOs are the right kinds of experience to present to a potential employer.
“Volunteering at a children’s home is good experience for someone studying social work or psychology, but it may not be the perfect fit for someone studying law.
“However helping to put together a fundraising campaign for the same children’s home would enable business and public relations students to put together experience they can present to potential employers,” Coughlan says.
She says the beauty of gaining this kind of “involved citizen” experience while studying is that everyone wins.
“You gain the skills you need to show that you have some of the experience required by the employer, but at the same time, you are giving something back to the society that enabled you to get the education in the first place. And the beneficiaries benefit from a service they did not have to pay for from their often meagre available funding.”
Career counselling researchers have noted that while the value of different attributes employers look for vary, there remain key values and attitudes that attract the attention of employers.
“If you keep these in mind while volunteering, you can build a set of references that speak exactly to the attributes that matter to a potential employer,” says Coughlan.
“Be conscious of what you need in terms of skills, demonstrated ability and qualifications, and then set out in a determined manner to build a portfolio for yourself based on the experience and recommendations that make you different from the person next to you.”
Coughlan says some traits are universal in terms of their attractiveness to employers who need to decide whether a candidate is worth investing in, and that future jobseekers should ensure they are able to demonstrate:
l Strong work ethic – Be the person who volunteers to do more than anyone else and don’t give up until the job is done; this includes the ability to manage and motivate yourself.
l Dependability and reliability – Never let anyone down. Under-promise but over-deliver.
l Positive attitude – Look for solutions and don’t get caught in negative spirals.
l Adaptability and resilience – If circumstances change, change with them.
l Integrity and honesty – Would you employ someone who lied to you?
l Willingness to learn – Tackle and master new things.
l Self confidence – Believe in yourself and your contribution without arrogance.
l People skills – Make other people feel comfortable, cultivate the ability to work well with a range of people, and manage conflict and disagreement positively.
“Most people don’t get the opportunity to get a higher education qualification, so as a student you are already part of the privileged few,” notes Coughlan.
“But the competition is brutal, and to succeed you must cultivate the qualities that will set you apart from millions of other job seekers.
“Gaining relevant know-how where need exists will not only enable you to tick the omnipresent “experience” box on your application, it will also provide you with the opportunity to demonstrate that you have the qualities that can turn you into a valuable asset should an employer take a chance on you.”